Inspiration (oddly) for this post:
- "Eight Things That Irritate Me With Edublogs" and "Eight Things That I Like About Edublogs", both by UK's Doug Belshaw
- The New Yorker cartoon seen down below
- A fortune cookie taped to my desktop monitor that reads: "Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril." (Psst, anyone know that John Dewey, Mr. Progressive Education, said that? Kinda cool, huh?)
- My own mind as it prepares itself to return to teaching high school English in 2.5 weeks, knowing full well the biggest hurdle that we'll need to clear as a class that first week is the "how will you grade us?" conversation
One of the great unspoken secrets of working the English teacher circuit where essays are regular currency is what we mean by an A (the "do you like me, really like me?" moment). Actually, what what we mean by that C or B, and why we didn't give the A. Psst. Has nothing to do with grading curves or trying to be difficult in the grading column. Trust me, reading a classfull of A essays is considered the Holy Grail of desire for most English teachers.
At the end of the day, kiddos, it ultimately comes down to one simple thing as a writer: whether you made a difference or not in the audience's life.
I once had a student who stayed after class long after her classmates left. While it took her a while to come out and ask the question that lingered on her mind, I could tell from her body language and the rolled up essay in her hand (an essay I had just returned, as a matter of fact) that this was going to be one those why-this-grade conversations:
"Ah, Mr. Long, can you answer me a question?" I nodded that she could.
"Well, you see, I'm curious. Why did I only get a B on the paper? You see, I worked really hard on this one..." she managed to ask/state without coming off as surprised and angry as she was really feeling for a grade 'well below' what she was accustomed to getting the previous year.
I looked her in the eye. Paused.
"Oh, the B. That means you did a really great job. I'm glad you worked as hard as you did..." I replied. The look on her face -- as much shock as confusion -- was priceless. She paused. Asked the same question again. And seemed to think I was crazy that a B meant "did a great job."
I was serious. I'll be just as serious in the year ahead.
Had she asked a different question -- say, "How could I have really made my audience feel the passion I had for my thesis, and do you think that would have made a difference in terms of my evaluation?", we'd have had a very different conversation altogther that day. She didn't ask that, however, so I just praised her for working hard (until she was ready to look the details found within her writing, not the grade). For her -- and so many students (and teachers, sadly) -- it is so often about the grade and this often means simply checking off the boxes of teacher expectations.
But just like in the blogosphere, it is one thing to simply deal in 'content' and 'follow someone's rules'...and quite another to have an actual impact on your audience. An impact that their mind really can't shake off right away. After a few weeks of the "Hey, look at me, I can publish in one click" frenzy all new bloggers wrap themselves in, most of us finally figure out what took us so long to grasp as a student turning in assigned essays: better figure out how to make an actual difference in your audience's day (maybe life), not just how to 'publish' content or 'follow the rules'.
What that young woman in my classroom years ago (and what many other of her classmates that year and well before) didn't grasp in those early weeks we spent together as an English class was the difference between a grade that describes merely checking off assigned boxes and that of a grade that naturally follows the "oh, my" moment for the reader. And that I wasn't entirely kidding when I said that essentially:
- a C = "Did everything I asked you to do, plus you got the essay in on time and used spell check (on average)."
- a B = "Clearly worked very hard to demonstrate a personal stake in the assignment while doing everything that I asked you to do. Clear that as a writer and thinker you were challenging a few of your own assumptions. Really nailing that spell check aspect. "
- an A = "Changed the way I as the reader -- your audience -- saw the original question and even challenged my own assumptions about the very topic itself. And your writing style? Seamless, graceful, and showcasing transitions to beat the band. Never even wondered about the spell check."
Just like the blogosphere, right? Spoken and unspoken rules:
- Just write (or copy), link, publish...and get a guaranteed C in the audience's mind. Some will be appreciative that the writing went down easy. That you offered them an encyclopedia of content that saves them a trip to the library. A few may even tune back in to see if you write anything again in the future. Emphasis on being polite. A few back-door rule makers and play-it-safe writers seem to enjoy the process. Quickly forgotten, otherwise.
- Or, be provocative just to be provocative, list out a few reasons why the 'other side' is wrong, and even hint that you're thinking beyond the surface of the topic...and get ready for a little blogosphere B grading action. Many will come back. Looking to be entertained, if not moved to action or changed in underlying terms. Heck, you may even ride the "got there first" wave a bit and watch the B links roll on in.
- Or, and this only matters if audience matters, push equally hard on your own assumptions as you do your readers' expectations. Take a topic well known or just on the scant edge of global awareness...and mash it up a bit, dust it off, tweak, twist, and deconstruct so that it begins to take on a life of its own. You and the reader(s) are no longer able to see the original question quite the same way ever again. Do that with a decent flair for writing -- no matter how 'correct' in terms of the MLA -- and there is an decent chance that the blog-grading-razzi will not only come back around again and again to see what's grabbing your attention, but the off-line conversations between you and them will take flight as well.
Content matters. Links stir the Google Juice pot. And argument and sarcastic strawman burning even raises eye brows. All perfectly average or above average ways to write, post, and attempt to engage.
On the other hand, if we demand more of ourselves along the way (no matter how popular you may be or how Technorati'd your score may appear) as writers and thinkers, we discover something far more critical. A voice.
A voice of conviction without trying to 'win', a voice of curiosity without failing to challenge your own thinking as well. Just like my students and I will use as our collective baseline this year when the English class train rolls out of the station.
You see, developing a personal style, demonstrating a voice of strength and reason and style, and having a sustained (even unexpected) impact on an audience in such a way that changes the way they actually interact with the question(s) matters to me. Matters to me as a blogger (whether I succeed, fail or other as a writer). And matters to me as an English teacher getting ready to return to the classroom soon. A great deal. Without apology. In fact, it remains the horizon line goal for everything we do as writers. No exceptions. Unless the A doesn't matter. Unless it is just about linking and cut/pasting content and conforming to someone's rules just to fit in and make the audience comfortable, you even more comfortable. If so, then we worry mostly about doing what was asked of us, getting it in on time, and making sure most words are spelled correctly. Safe. In the margins. Predictable. No fear of standing out. Or disrupting larger conversations. At all.
In other words:
- Want an A? Change the way I see and think. Demonstrate that you have changed as well. And expect me to come back by choice next time.
- Want a C? Just do what was assigned. Nothing more, nothing less. Nobody changes. At all. As to whether I come back or not, well...
Nah. Just like the blogosphere. Just like the real world.
Except that in the classroom where you have my promise and respect as your teacher, I'll actually tell you ahead of time what I'm looking for. Additionally, I'll read and re-read anything you turn into me. No matter what. Something the real world may do for you. On a particularly empathetic day. If you're lucky. Once.
Or if they simply want you to play it safe so they can remain comfortable and unmoved. If even that matters at the end of the day.