Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: How Teaching Composition is Like Playing Candy Land

My daughter is three, and right now she loves to play board games. This is awesome because we're a family of board game players, and I'm glad that she's getting started on picking up this important cultural heritage so that she can soon join in on the family holiday tradition of laughing at the crazy drawings in Telestrations or coming up with Loretta Lynn's "Lincoln" for triple points in Scattergories. Unfortunately (for me anyway), she's not quite up to those standards right now, so we're stuck with Candy Land and this needlessly complicated but completely skill-void atrocity called The Lady Bug Game.

A conversation with a colleague helped me realize just how important these boring games are to her development (and not just for future Scattergories tournaments). She's learning how rules work, and--most importantly--she's learning she can trust me to help her make sense of the rules.

When we play Candy Land, she tries to cheat. She gets upset when I'm in front of her and tries to move her piece haphazardly across the board so she can be in front. She tries to sneak the card back into the pile and pick another one if she doesn't like what it says, and by "sneak" I mean that she announces loudly "I don't like this one!" and then makes a grab for the stack. She'll grab three cards at once and pick the one that has the most squares on it.

But she also breaks the rules in ways that make no sense, strategy-wise. She'll get excited about getting to go to the cupcake even if that's a move backwards, away from the win. She'll only move one red space when the card she drew allowed her two. She'll not realize when she's won an extra turn or some other special feature.

She relies on me in both of these instances. It is my job to patiently, calmly explain that she can't take three cards and pick the one she likes, that she can't just move her piece wherever she wants, that that's not how the game works. It is just as important that I point out when she moved in the wrong direction or didn't take enough moves forward.

Furthermore, I can win Candy Land any time I want. If I want to, I can move three spaces instead of two. I can pretend there's a magic portal that only I can see that takes me halfway across the board. I can say these things convincingly and get my way . . . because she trusts me.

She trusts me to enforce the rules fairly and correctly even if she knows that she's not following them. In fact, I think she's purposefully not following them just to try to figure out where the boundaries are. Children's games have simple rules, but they also throw in elements of surprise that probably seem arbitrary and a little off to the kids playing them. She needs me to enforce the guidelines in a way that helps her make sense of the patterns and internalize them for the future, a future hopefully filled with fun more complex than moving in along a row of colored blocks in a series of "choices" that are just blind luck.

Students, especially my developmental students, are also playing a game, but their stakes are higher.

My developmental writing students also try to cheat the system. They turn in papers with entire paragraphs copied from Wikipedia without even changing the font or taking out the hyperlinks. They'll master the formatting guidelines for one paper and then turn in one a week later entirely in 30-point Wingdings. They'll show me a gorgeous outline full of great ideas during a conference and then turn in a paper that doesn't include a single one of them.

When you really think about it, writing conventions are a lot like the rules of Candy Land: arbitrary, changing just often enough to be confusing, and maintained by some distant and disconnected power (if only the MLA guidebook was illustrated with lollipops and lemon drops). Despite many teachers' best efforts to create realistic audience situations and assignments that are interesting and relevant, the end goal is often the same, too: to "win."

I think to a large extent all students see the class as a game they win by passing, but this is particularly true for developmental students who often resent their placement in the class to begin with. Developmental classes are inherently representative of "the system" in a way that credit-bearing classes are not. Everyone from fellow college students to the admissions counselors to politicians create an environment in which this representation is reinforced repeatedly. Students who are placed in developmental classes are acutely aware of the game they're playing, and they therefore have more to prove in winning.

Which is why I think they quit so often.

Often, my lowest level developmental class experiences a mass exodus around midterm. I'll start with 23 students, drop down to 18 by a few weeks in, and then only have 9 left after midterms. Last year, I knew that more than half of the students in one of my classes were failing at midterm, and I made a (probably desperate-sounding) plea before I dismissed them the day before midterm grades went out: "Don't drop!" I said directly, "I know that a lot of you are going to be disappointed by these grades, but you can still pass. We are going to figure this out. Please don't drop."

Then I met with each one of them in conferences and we set up individual plans to get better work in the second half of the semester.

About three-fourths of the way through the semester, I started to feel like a failure. That classroom was unruly and loud. There was always a disruption, and I never got as much done in a class period as I hoped. I couldn't figure out why this one class was going so much worse than all my others, but then I stopped to really look at the situation: almost all of the students had stayed. The students who usually dropped out at midterm hadn't. The class was still packed, and with that increase in population came an increase in distraction, but it was one I would gladly take if it meant not losing half my students.

Reflecting on it now, I think that announcement served the same purpose that keeps my daughter playing Candy Land with me: she trusts that I'll enforce the rules fairly. She knows that if she moves her piece backwards instead of forwards, I'll correct her. Of course I tell my students not to drop every year, but I think there was some kind of perfect storm for that particular class in that they heard the true desire to help them win somewhere behind my voice. They knew they could trust me to play fair.

I know that comparing teaching developmental writing to playing Candy Land with a three-year-old will open up sneers of condescension that the job isn't "real" college teaching and all the other sexist drivel that dismisses the "mothering" aspects of academia (any kind of emotional labor as I wrote about here) as unimportant coddling. I disagree, though. I think that all teaching involves some element of enforcing the rules in a way that reveals their patterns, illustrating the world to be a set of complicated and sometimes contradicting boundaries that have to be identified and examined before they can be breached (and they will need to be breached).

If you don't trust the person with whom you're playing the game, you can't learn that. You throw the board across the room lodging little plastic pieces in the perfect spot under the bed so that someone will step on them while trying to get ready for work the next morning or you drop the class. You quit.

And you can't learn to break the rules that need to be broken if you don't play the game.

Photos: am boo who?, Andreas-photographyAnshul Nigham

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