On Grading

So far, I’ve held two class meetings for the Public Speaking & Debate course I’m teaching at a nearby prison. Last class period (we meet weekly), my students gave their first graded speech. Which means, since this is the first class I’ve ever taught, this week I graded assignments for the first time. As a note, because I’m not qualified to teach at a real college, the class I’m teaching is part of the program’s “certificate course,” meaning that students can’t get college credit for it. Nonetheless, public speaking is a valuable skill, and practice for more official college classes is something I think most, if not all, students could benefit from.

It was a harrowing experience.

The first hurdle I ran into was a deep and anxiety-inducing feeling of being an impostor. I’m not a real college professor, after all. I’m not even done with my first Masters degree, which means I can’t teach even introductory or community college classes. I haven’t graded assignments for an instructor since I was a little kid correcting spelling tests from my grandmother’s first-graders. So as I sat down with the preliminary notes I had taken during each student’s speech, I started wondering, Who am I to give grades? I can do feedback, but who am I to assign numerical values to these peoples’ work? This was something like how I felt during my first few weeks of graduate school, when I had to force myself not to hunch over in hopes of going unnoticed because I was irrationally convinced that someone would demand to know what I was doing, since I was clearly not A Real Grad Student.

Also, I found myself beset by a whole set of other concerns. How do I make sure grades are fair? I’m used to having to rank speeches as a judge in collegiate forensics competitions, but grades are a different story. I can’t give everyone a perfect score, because there was definitely a range in skill and effectiveness, but I was definitely impressed by the quality of speeches I heard. Some of my students have experience either in their pre-incarceration professional lives or through the prison chapter of Toastmasters, but I was very pleased that everyone spoke for at least the minimum time allotted, no one went over the maximum upper end of time, and everyone had interesting and thoughtful things to say even though they only had 60 seconds to prepare to speak for two to three minutes on a quotation they had probably never seen before. I appreciate that, especially after having seen college public speaking classes and new competitors in forensics events, many of whom struggled more to meet similar requirements than the students I have in my current class. (And I’m positive this isn’t a result of my stellar instruction!)

A liberal college education has left me very sensitive to questions of prejudice, including racism, sexism, and classism. On the plus side, all of my students are male, so I didn’t have to worry that I was skewing grades based on gender. But I have a diverse class – half or more of my students are non-White – and being White myself, I had to go through all of the preliminary grades I assigned and reassure myself that I probably wasn’t skewing based on race. I’d like to say that I am for sure not allowing race to be a factor, but let’s be honest and admit that complete certainty isn’t possible. The best I can do is force myself to be open and honest about the grading and why each person received the grade they did.

What I wound up doing was going through my preliminary notes, taken during the speeches themselves, and giving each person detailed feedback including both praise and suggestions. I never had to think very hard to come up with something positive to say. I really mean it that I was impressed by their first speeches. If they’d been any better, I might have had an attack of insecurity as I pounded my brain to try and figure out what I had left to teach! But focusing on feedback does two things – it gives reasoning for grading, thereby preventing the arbitrary system from being completely arbitrary, but it also means that students get back something that recognizes the specific strengths and weaknesses of their work.

In my last post, I talked about how important it is to remember that the classroom exists for the students. Grading should be an extension of that, because assignments, in my opinion, function as a check-in point. They let me see what my students are good at and what they still need to work on, which helps me put together feedback, lesson plans, and activities that actually address their needs. For the student, grades and assignment feedback are a recognition of their strengths and support for improving their weaknesses. You don’t take a class on something you’re already perfect at, but judicious and honest praise, praise that you’ve earned, helps build confidence in developing skills. And having someone tell you, not what most people have to work on, but what you need to work on and suggest ways to do that, demonstrates that the instructor is interested in your progress.

I think that last is especially important in this situation, because many prisoners are where they are in part because of inadequate social resources and positive reinforcement when they were growing up. This is not true of every person convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, but it’s a common enough story that it’s worth trying to intervene. Additionally, the prison environment itself is demeaning, demoralizing, and dehumanizing. I struggle with it sometimes, and I’m only there for a few hours a week. I think honest, earnest praise that openly acknowledges areas that need work is good for everyone…but it’s especially important in an institutionalized setting, and even more so in the lives of people who are making an effort toward rehabilitation, even if they may never be released. A desire and dedication to self-improvement should be respected and encouraged everywhere it appears, and a classroom is in some ways uniquely suited to that goal.

And that’s the story of how I made grading 2-3 minute speeches an act of resistance to the carceral state, at least in my own mind.

Preparing to Teach

Preparing to teach my class consisted of picking readings (and scanning over a hundred pages to be bound in course packets for my students), wrestling my way through writing my first syllabus, and deciding what assignments I would have them do. All of that seems to be pretty standard for getting ready to teach a class.

What differed from preparing for any other class was figuring out how to work within the strictures of a prison. For one thing, asking students to do research for assignments is problematic, since the prison library is only open for a few days a week, and if a prisoner is scheduled elsewhere (work, a class, etc.) during that time, they’re simply out of luck. For another, internet research is flat out of the question – while there are a handful of computers, they don’t have open internet access. Nor can prisoners walk down to the nearest bookstore and purchase materials. So designing assignments requires flexibility.

Another key difference is the power disparity. While there is always an uneven power relationship between students and instructors, in that students must perform according to their instructors’ expectations in order to receive good grades, in a situation where at the end of class I walk out of the prison, get in my truck, and drive home while my students return to their cells, that inequality becomes stark. The last thing I want to do in the classroom is make an issue of that, but to pretend that it doesn’t exist seems fundamentally dishonest. My students and I are not in the same situation. Although we are all human beings and entitled to the same respect and courtesy, the material conditions of our lives clearly demonstrate that in some ways we are not the same.

At the same time, I was deeply concerned (and very insecure) about my ability to teach a class by myself, especially knowing that all of my students were going to be male and probably many would be significantly older. After all, my only experiences teaching have been with college-age students, either as a peer or as an older or graduate student. Most of them have been short-term (a class or a workshop), or informal and ungraded (like running debate practices). Walking into this, I had never taught a whole class by myself, let alone one I had put together from the ground up.

What I decided was simple. This class is for the benefit of the people taking it. Will it look good on my CV? Probably. Will I gain valuable experience that may help me as I pursue a career as a more traditional college professor? Probably. But at the end of the day, the students are taking this class to learn something. Yes, this is something I have more experience and more formal training in. All that means is exactly that – I have the benefit of a little more experience and formal training, and I will try to pass on what I know as best I can. Which means being flexible with assignments, imparting information through lectures, readings, and activities, and paying close attention to how useful what I’m teaching is. If something isn’t working, it should probably be changed. One of the most valuable things about teaching, something I had never really clearly articulated to myself before starting this class, is that the most important person in the room isn’t the teacher. As an instructor, I’m not up in front of a classroom to feel better about myself, to make myself look good, to accumulate lines on a CV or talking points for a job interview. I’m there to facilitate other peoples’ learning.

Something else that became important to me as I continued to think about this, especially after the first couple of class meetings, was that the people I am teaching are human. Yes, they are in prison. I don’t entirely forget that at any point – if nothing else, the padlocked AA lockers in the corner of the classroom, the uniforms the students wear, and the need to get the only women’s bathroom in the building unlocked by a guard during break or after class all serve as constant reminders. But the prisoners in my classroom are also students. They’re not perfect students, but they are already learning. They ask questions, sometimes ones I have to really think to answer. They think. They all have a story. They deserve respect and courtesy from me, and I appreciate that they consistently return the same.

Have they made mistakes in their lives? Many of them, perhaps most or even all of them, would freely agree that they have. It is dangerous to look at a room full of convicts and be completely blind to what brought them into that room. But in the classroom, I am willing to treat them as students and not as “offenders” (as all the prison material and internal signage refers to them). I don’t ask what crimes they committed, how long they’ve been in, or how long they have still to go. Sometimes they will offer that information (as some of them have), but it’s their information, and I have no intention of pressing for it. Am I sometimes curious how the polite and thoughtful men in my classroom wound up in prison? Yes. But ultimately, like whether a college kid went on a bender the weekend before an exam, that’s none of my business.

What they do in my classroom is. So far, that’s been working pretty well. I’ve been learning a lot and I think they’ve been learning at least a little bit.

A New Direction

Although this blog began as a space for me to record thoughts and frustrations on a wide variety of topics, and has continued (sporadically) in that vein, I have discovered a new focus. This may lead to more posts and it may not, but my current endeavors are occupying a lot of my mind and if nothing else, I feel I will benefit from recording some of those reactions and thoughts somewhere. Since it occurs to me both that I am more likely to do this when posting online and that others might be interested in or benefit from my reflections, I will be putting those thoughts here.

To bring my currently nonexistent readership up to speed, I am currently in a Masters program centered on Cultural Studies, and the field of research I’ve found myself in deals intimately with prisoners and incarceration. I did not leave my undergraduate institution with a plan of researching incarceration (in fact, my work to that point had dealt largely with sexual minorities and death/bereavement), but I did have an interest in prisons, prisoners, and prison education stemming from interactions between my debate team and our coach with prisoners affiliated with Toastmasters International. My debate coach had begun teaching debate courses to prisoners at a state prison and began taking his team into the prison once a year for a showcase debate with prisoners. This practice expanded in later years to include a one-day debate tournament with competitors from several Pacific Northwest colleges as well as inmates.

Now, I am teaching a public speaking and debate course to prisoners in a different state. I hope to bring the students from the debate team for which I am assistant coach in to the prison at the end of the current term for a debate and open forum discussion. The research project that will (hopefully!) culminate in my Masters Thesis deals with an exploration of the narrative experience of released prisoners struggling through reintegration with society. Prison and prisoners has become my academic focus, at least for now.

Why prison? Why prisoners? Why not focus my attentions and energy on teaching ordinary students, ones that society at large deems more “deserving” of education because they have committed no major crimes?

First, I think the concept of relative levels of “deserving” education is a false one. Everyone deserves the chance to be educated to the limit of their interest and ability. This is one of the reasons I deeply resent the current structure of US American post-secondary education, including for-profit universities, tuition hikes, and massive student loan debt. Affording college is difficult for most people.

Second, the recidivism rate in this country is astronomical. According to statistics released by the Bureau of Justice, a study of 30 states confirmed that 75% of prisoners were re-arrested within the first 5 years after their release. This is an ongoing cycle connected to poverty, joblessness, habituated criminal behavior, and the complete inability of our justice system’s “correctional facilities” to provide prisoners with rehabilitation, skills, or education.

Third, prison education definitively reduces recidivism. In a three-state survey conducted by the Correctional Education Association, available here , participants in educational programs were consistently less likely to be rearrested, reconvicted, or reincarcerated. Another study, though it hesitates to estimate the scope of the effect prison education has on recidivism and post-release employment, does acknowledge that prison education does have a positive effect on these statistics. A third study, this one from the Urban Institute, confirms these findings.

My involvement in prison education stems from a desire to intervene in what is to me one of the most troubling shortcomings of our country, and out of a recognition of my own particular skills and abilities. I am not a fundraiser. I am not a politician or a lobbyist. I am not much of an organizer. But I am passionate about education, I enjoy teaching, and although I am as yet inexperienced, I am learning and improving. I am at heart an academic, and I intend for the two facets of academia (teaching and research) to be tools in a crusade that is much, much larger than me.

So what’s the new direction? It will be reflections on the experience of teaching in a prison. It will probably involve the occasional post born of outrage or fascination as I conduct research. There may still be posts about atheism, mental illness, and gaming. But the aimlessness of my jaunt is temporarily suspended as I head toward a particular destination.

What’s in a Relationship?

A lot of things have changed in the year since my last post. I earned my bachelor’s, I met someone who is currently my boyfriend, I moved away from Dear Roommate to attend graduate school (which starts next week). There’s a lot to talk about, but last night left me with an amusing anecdote that seemed worth starting up this spate of posts with.

Boyfriend and I spent yesterday afternoon apartment hunting. It was long and frustrating but we only had one very minor argument (which is impressive for us; more on that later). We got back to the friend’s house where we’re staying and played with their roommate’s dog (who was left in his tiny kennel for several hours). And we ended the night sitting on the floor together, watching mediocre standup comedy, and splitting a Hungry Man.

And that’s a relationship right there. Long and unpleasant afternoon doing something necessary, relaxing in your underwear together and watching tv while you share a frozen dinner. It’s not necessarily love, but it’s what a relationship looks like – it’s the comfort and the togetherness and the not-giving-a-fuck.


What thinking Science gets you

So I ran across an interesting article this morning. It’s about a mother’s trip to the ER with her daughter, who had split open her scalp and needed several stitches. The doctor who stitched her up was particularly considerate of their anxiety and used some unorthodox techniques to get them both to relax, which made the whole process very simple, functionally painless.

It was the later section that intrigued me though. After describing her experience with the physician, Zimmerman gives us a brief description of Dr. Krauss’s work on pediatric emergency care. In her interview with him, Krauss explains how he came to develop his methods.

The son of a rabbi, Krauss has a Masters degree in Education and training as a clinical psychologist in addition to his medical practice. He began his divergent methodology by studying videos he took of himself interacting with children and their parents because he noticed that he got better results working with children than his colleagues did.

I want to stop here and talk about this. Not long ago, according to Krauss, the medical community held that infants were incapable of processing pain and that young children couldn’t feel pain to the same extent as adults and easily forgot what pain they did feel. So procedures (including major surgeries) were regularly performed on infants without anesthetic. I remember, as a child, splitting my chin open on a slide and getting stitches in the emergency room.  I was no more than five or six, and I clearly remember being utterly terrified; my parents told me not to fight the doctor, but this was someone MUCH bigger than I was who was hurting me – like anybody, I panicked. I think it is very reasonable to trace my hatred of hospitals and my difficulty in trusting adults in some part to that experience.

The medical community has moved on from that viewpoint. But little effort is made to deal with small children as small children, taking into account their developmental status while still treating them like human beings who deserve their pain to be minimized as much as possible. If anything, I’d think it would be more important to minimize pain for children who don’t have the cognitive capacity to work through the pain and the reason for it – who experience the whole thing as a source of complete and utter terror with little or no appreciation for its necessity. That feeling of helplessness can stay with you for a long damn time.

But Krauss has worked hard to change that, at least for his patients. The thing that intrigues me the most, though, is that he clearly saw what he was doing as a matter of skill and therefore a thing that could be analyzed and taught to others.

This is the attitude of a scientist. It is the thought process that is available to people who are trained to think in terms of a comprehensible reality, one that can be studied and learned from, where much of our interactions with others depend on skills that anyone can learn. Some people use those skills intuitively while others need to be taught, but the benefit of thinking of them as skills is that it is possible to teach and learn them.

The mindset that comes from a history of thinking spiritually or supernaturally could just as easily describe those skills as innate qualities – a spiritual connection to children, a gift from God (or gods, or the Universe) in healing and helping, a psychic ability to soothe and support. Any of these attitudes would be completely useless for teaching others to do the same things. Those patterns of thought interfere with our ability to treat these interactions as observable phenomena whose particularities can be expanded out to other situations and uses.

In one universe, the one where religious and spiritual and supernatural thinking hold sway, Krauss would be commended but his skills would not be spread to others. In another universe, where a more scientific approach to the world is prevalent, Krauss’s methods can be deciphered and decoded to be taught to other professionals. In this latter world, the suffering of children and parents can be lessened on a scope not available to one man.

I would much rather be a part of that second universe, the one where the suffering of children matters, not as a benefit to their spiritual growth, but  as a thing to be avoided for the health and well-being of child and parent alike.

Wouldn’t you?


Mirror, Mirror Part 3: Books and Morality

On how reading books above one’s grade level entails more than just bigger words…it means confronting bigger ideas.

I read a lot as a child. From the first time I went to the library with my mother as a small child (five or six, I don’t recall which) and checked out my first Nancy Drew book, I have loved libraries and books and reading. I would walk out of the library with as many books as I could carry – and this is no exaggeration. The “too may books” limit happened when I started dropping them, and it was a tragic moment in which I had to choose which of my potential darlings I had to leave behind.

And from that moment when I checked out Nancy Drew in defiance of my mother’s certainty that it would be too hard for me and then I totally read the whole thing and understood it I have been reading well above my “grade level.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, except that I started reading “Young Adult” books when I was about nine or ten…which was about the time I encountered sex and sexuality and difficult moral questions. And that was long before my parents expected me to run into such things. By the time they handed me the “God Made You Special!” book I was already pretty conversant with the ideas behind sex and the emotions that were most frequently involved, how sex could go very very wrong, and how important it could be.

See, what they were thinking (and what many people think) when they heard the phrase “Reading Above Her Grade Level” was that I was learning harder words and maybe more complicated sentences. It never occurred to them that I would be encountering more mature concepts – like sexuality, justice in morally grey areas, identity, war…all sorts of things we don’t generally expect 3rd and 4th graders to understand.

That age – ten to fifteen – is key in moral development. It’s part of the process of learning about a lot of things that will be key in shaping your identity and ethics in the rest of your life. Before my parents broached any of these subjects with me, I was reading about them. Which is why I have Mercedes Lackey to thank for my moral development at least as much as my parents; at least, I can’t think of another reason why my personal morality would fit more closely with her writing than what my parents believed when I was growing up.

Being homosexual was not an acceptable thing in my family. It just wasn’t – it was a thing that (rightly) brought violence down on you; being homosexual in, say The Last Herald-Mage trilogy or the Arrows trilogy, was a perfectly acceptable way to be, but it was important to be aware that there were people who might not be so accepting and who could make life difficult…not because there was anything wrong with being gay, but because people can be very judgmental and cruel.

So I began developing a complex and responsive moral code from the time that I was about ten. I thought about the nature of revenge – is revenge (as opposed to justice) ever justified? Is it right to kill someone for certain crimes? Is it better or worse to kill them in the heat of passion versus coldly, calculatedly? This is how I developed my opinion on the death penalty.

How do you deal with being raped? How do you grow to trust people again afterward? Questions I thought about at ten, eleven years old…with answers I needed by the time I was eighteen.

I was able to deal with the ideas in those books; I not only grew my vocabulary but learned more about the world. And possibly the most important thing I learned was that everyone thinks and feels differently. That what I understood about how the world works was not the same as what other people understood. And that’s not only okay, it’s the way it’s supposed to be.

And that’s something I’m very glad I learned as early as possible. It’s something I hope to teach young people someday, because I think it’s pretty damn important. Not everyone sees things the same way. Basic respect for diversity of all kinds. Respect for people as individuals. The willingness to call bullshit when you see it.

The problem is this – all those good lessons I was learning from the Heralds of Valdemar and the Free Bards were directly contradicted by Christian ideological brainwashing. But let’s save that for next time.


Why Kissing?

Allow me to set the scene.

So I was out (very) late the other night at a Denny’s, talking to a new friend. We’d stepped outside so he could take a smoke break and this (very) drunk man came outside and asked how long we’d been together.

“We’re not,” both of us told him. “We just met a few hours ago.” The conversation meandered along from there (touching on my friend being entirely too un-em-boobened for me to be into him anyway, which wasn’t entirely inaccurate) until this inebriated gentleman grew utterly flabbergasted when my friend informed him that he wasn’t a very good kisser. (This, it turns out, was a fiction mean to fuck with the guy’s head) This guy was completely floored.

“You’ll never have truly mindblowing sex until you can really kiss,” he declared.

The rest of the conversation, although amusing, isn’t really relevant. It’s just that one sentence that really stood out to me. Because it’s not entirely wrong. When I think back to the best sex I’ve had, kissing is always part of it. Leading in, trailing out, it’s a big part of the whole process. And I wondered why that is – what is unique about kissing that it impacts quality of sex in such a big way?

I think some of it may be cultural. I didn’t see porn (at least, not intentionally…but the kitty porn is a tale for another day) until I was away at college. What I did see was the occasional PG-13 movie in which steamy kisses were about as far as things went onscreen. Kissing was a sort of stand-in for the sexy times that I read about (and occasionally experienced) but didn’t actually watch other people doing.

Then there’s the fact that when you and your partner are both young, neither of you know what the hell you’re doing. No fucking clue. You’re both stumbling around and there’s so much to learn, particularly if you’re not of the same sex – you don’t even know how their equipment feels, how do you know how to make it feel good?!

But kissing. Kissing you can do without needing to hide away and close the door and hope no one sees or hears. Kissing you can practice without all those risks they tell you about in health class. You can just keep kissing until you start getting it right. And if you kiss several people, you won’t necessarily get a reputation as a slut. I mean really, who says, “She was kissing around!”?

Fuckin’ nobody.

And there’s a certain intimacy to kissing that you get when there’s a lack of urgency. You can kiss forever and not want to stop, if it’s going well; few people can say the same thing about any form of sex without getting sore. Plus, it’s actually really hard to forget who you’re kissing. Try it. It’s much easier to close your eyes and pretend you’re fucking someone else than it is to pretend you’re sucking face with another person.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. Or maybe I’m full of shit. But damn is good kissing sexy…and bad kissing is a pretty significant turnoff.




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