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Vroom Vroom

posted: 6.28.07 by Barclay Barrios

I’m getting a motorcycle!

I have a friend who’s gonna sell me his 2002 Honda Shadow VLX Deluxe. I’m soooo psyched, even if I am borrowing money from my retirement fund to pay for it! LOL! But, besides the normal financial worries, what was most on my mind when making this decision were issues of fear and risk, as in “Am I willing to live with the risks that come with riding a motorcycle, even with a helmet?” and “OMG yes I took the safety course and yes I have my license, but am I ready to ride a 600cc bike?”

Of course, in the context of this blog, this also has me thinking about risk and fear in terms of both me and my students. I have enough experience teaching now to feel relatively safe taking risks in the classroom, mostly because I can avoid the nastiest consequences. So, for example, sometimes an assignment just bombs but I can work around then in the class and course design to make sure the students don’t have to pay for my risk and, as many posts have considered, I learn and grow from that.

But I wonder about my students. I wonder if I create a classroom atmosphere that allows risk while helping them manage fear. Let’s face it, my students fear a bad grade and that often controls the choices they make and the risks they’re willing to take. I think, in fact, that somewhere out in the criticism there’s work on how students hyperconform. That’s OK to a point, but I think we’ve all witnessed and experienced beautiful growth from risks, both personal and in our writing. So how do I give my students that chance?

One way, I guess is low stakes writing. I don’t use an awful lot of that and maybe I should. More often, I talk with students about diving. In my universe there are two kinds of A papers. The first gets an A because it does nothing wrong; the second might have some faults (maybe even some serious ones) but it attempts to do something so original or authoritative or compelling or ambitious that, despite its faults, the risks taken translate into an A. That I call the “bang wow” A. My challenge now (as always) is to find ways to encourage students towards that kind of A. One thing I do is encourage students to look at the pieces of text we never discussed in class, the parts that everyone seemed to ignore. Often thinking through those pieces leads to whole new areas of argument that set their papers immediately apart. I need to do more.

So what role does risk play in your classes? How do you make it OK for students to take risks, how do you minimize fear, and what do you do when they figuratively take a spill?

Vroom! Vroom!

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Categories: Assessment, Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Teaching Advice
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4 Responses to “Vroom Vroom”

  1. Derek Says:

    This question, for me, hearkens back to the matters of rubrics and assignment prompts we discussed earlier. There’s an interpersonal element, too, but I tend to look to the formalities of explicit assignments and assessment rubrics when it comes to risk. I mean, how does the assignment encourage risk taking? Or how does the rubric create a space roomy enough for students to take chances, for students to attempt projects that might not turn out to be perfect (or highly-rated, as leveled in the rubric)? No doubt I’ve messed it up as often as I’ve experienced success with it, but I like to think that I vary the riskiness of the venture from one assignment or project to the next. Earlier projects in any semester tend to be lower risk (operating, that is, in more familiar domains), and later projects tend to urge greater risk.

  2. Jessica Kidd Says:

    I try to encourage risk taking by giving students the chance to revise a paper later in the semester for a grade change.
    They can take a risk on the earlier paper and know that they can improve the grade later, or they can take a paper they are comfortable with and try something spectacular — the revision never lowers their grade.
    I’ve found that you have to reassure students that their grades won’t plummet if they try to expand their writing abilities.

  3. JP Says:

    This is an issue I’ve recently been pondering as well, while I was teaching my first FYC in about three years this past Winter semester. After the first assignment, it did seem that the students that received the highest grades were those that tended to play it safe and exhibit “mechanical correctness.” I tried to change it up with subsequent assignments by focusing more and more on the particular contexts the students were writing to – what audience, inside of what conversation, etc. – and what they were hoping to achieve with the written work. In other words, when you force students to respond to a specific and manageable real-world context, it’s a little easier to evaluate “success” in relation to both the ingenuity or novelty of the piece and its stylistic or mechanical attributes. In other words, for some audiences, it’s more important that “every i is dotted” while for others, a novel style is more vital to their objective. This is something of a compromise – students will naturally gravitate, at best, to the projects that will build the skills they hope to sharpen, and, at worst, to projects that rely most heavily on the areas they have already exhibited proficiency in – but it’s the best solution I’ve been able to come up so far.

  4. Bill Says:

    I’ve found that removing grading from the mix until the very end of the semester is key to encouraging risk-taking. Too, I typically allow students the freedom to choose topics. The two practices in-tandem, coupled with my ungraded feedback, often have a positive effect. Granted, there’s some risk (for both me and them!) that their essays (via revision) will simply become my essays, but I try — quite diligently may I add — to steer clear of pushing content in a direction I see as “suitable” or “appropriate.”

    Something in JP’s post (Jeff, is that you?) got me contemplating Stephen Barnhardt’s observations about document genres and audience expectation. Perhaps if students felt a genuine sense of both the requirements of a given genre and the liberties they might take, they’d be better equipped to navigate the complexities that stymie their willingness to experiment in the first place. Just a thought . . .