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Why I grade writing students on respect and empathy

Years ago, when I was still teaching writing classes with training wheels, I had a student turn in a short film script that I wanted to refuse to workshop in class.

It involved a fashion model with no interior life, treated with disdain and ridicule by the dialogue she was given and the way the action and description lines of the script referred to her. There was a lecherous, controlling photographer who the script treated as a virtuous character, even as he sexually assaulted and murdered her.

I met with this student before showing the script to the class and tried to suss out his intent. We spoke for over a half hour as I tried to get across the numerous reasons I had for believing this script wasn’t appropriate for our class.

But he was set in his belief that there was nothing wrong with what was in his script. His said it was honest: That all women just want to be famous, and this woman that he depicted being gaslit, sexually harassed, and murdered deserved what she got.

I had to repeat this back to him to make sure I had heard him right: He wanted to write a script where the audience felt that the model deserved to be murdered for being a model.

As I was trying to explain the many problems with all of this, he interrupted me to ask a question: Was he going to be graded on any of this?

I hadn’t anticipated that a student would be willing to share something so toxic with a room full of their peers, and be willing to be graded on it.

The truth was, I didn’t have anything in writing that directly and specifically addressed the issues we were discussing. He would lose points for flawed characterization and an exploitative and non-sensical plot, but those didn’t get to the heart of the issue.

That was a big problem. A student could turn in an absolutely abhorrent story, and I hadn’t given myself a way to check their impulses with the most powerful leverage I had in the classroom.

I needed better grading tools

After that semester, I evaluated all of my grading criteria and lectures. Something was missing, and it needed to be front and center.

From that point forward, every writing assignment I have given to students involves some variation on the same grading rubric. If they want to get all the points available for this rubric, they need to demonstrate respect & empathy in their writing.

All characters on the page treated as fully-dimensional humans. No stock types, straw men, or derogatory stereotypes used. Every role gives an actor someone specific and realistic to inhabit.

I don’t get as much time as I’d like with each student. I don’t get as much time as I’d like with each of their assignments. So I find a way to make them sit up and take notice of a real problem for writers by making their grade depend on them taking stock of how their writing could have an impact on others.

There’s no clear way to look inside the hearts and minds of every student to see if their default is to look at other people with dignity, respect, and affirming their basic humanity. When we talk about developing characters in class, one of the main points I always make is that we can never truly know anyone. We only know what we see from what we see them say and do.

So that’s what I tell them I’m looking at — What did you write, and what does that show me?

Because narrative choices are moral choices.

No fiction is objective

The defense of saying “That’s just how things were back then!” or “That’s just how people are!” doesn’t work with me.

Any time you tell a story, you’re telling a specific story, loaded with the choices you’ve made as one person, from your perspective.

You can never be objective.

To be truly objective, you would have to know everything and also not have any stakes in the story you’re trying to tell. The first one is impossible, and the second is improbable.

  • You’re not going to spend the time writing a story that doesn’t mean something to you.
  • You’re not going to tell a story that doesn’t have some kind of personal point of reference somewhere in the narrative.
  • You’re going to create characters and situations based on your individual knowledge and experience. Even ways you use to expand your knowledge and experience are still filtered through your individual perceptions of what’s important, meaningful, or useful.

You will always be one little person.

And that’s okay…

So long as you acknowledge that in your writing and as you’re writing.

You need to think about how the stories you choose to tell put the audience in the perspective of certain characters, and what it means to prioritize the perspective of those characters over others.

You need to think about how the resolution of your story gives the victorious perspective moral weight, even if you don’t believe your story has an Aesop-style moral.

You need to think about how, if you’re writing a dramatic work, every single role will be performed by a living, breathing, feeling human being. What are you asking them to do? To think? To feel?

Are you asking an actor to choose between paying their rent and portraying something that reinforces negative stereotypes? Are you going to make an actor feel guilty for taking their paycheck?

And you need to consider how, even if it’s abundantly clear that what you’re writing is fiction, some people may use what you’ve written to further a very real agenda.

Act like your words matter

Because it’s the only way that they will.

If you want people to take your writing seriously, write in a way that shows you give serious consideration to what your words could do if shared with the widest possible audience.

Don’t treat something you’re writing as beneath you, or look at your characters with contempt.

Any story has the potential to carry deep meaning for another person.

People have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in stories in ways that their life may deny them, or in ways that they didn’t anticipate. But a story can’t take hold of a person’s hopes, fears, and sense of self if the writer doesn’t consider it possible.

Give them a mirror worth looking into.

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Battling Impostor Syndrome

A student came up to me after class and asked about impostor syndrome. I had mentioned in class that one of the main causes of things like plagiarism or bloated writing is insecurity: People are afraid that their writing will be found lacking, and that they will seem lesser because of it.

And this student wanted to know what they should do to fight back.

Impostor Syndrome comes from the idea that people will see you as a fraud. That you are less than what you claim to be. But it’s also the feeling that we don’t measure up to our own projection of who we are, or who we should be.

You don’t need an audience to feel like a fraud.

But somebody was looking to me for an answer, so I warned them that this feeling never really goes away. The insecurity and uncertainty just become more manageable over time, given the right effort.

This is not a life hack. This will not cure you. This isn’t even a tactic that works 100% of the time. But you can try it, and it might help.

Focus on the work, not what you think the work means.

If you’re writing something, focus on the story beat. If you’re revising something, focus on the sentence in front of you. Then the next one. If you’re offering advice to another writer, don’t worry about what they’re going to think about you based on your advice. Just do your best to tell them what you see in their work, and help them realize their goals.

And if you feel yourself thinking about what you’re going to say in your awards acceptance speeches, or how you’re going to spend all that money you’re destined to be making, or how you’re going to get to start name-dropping all your fancy new friends… If you find yourself dreaming about the rewards for work you haven’t done yet, that’s the other side of the Impostor Syndrome coin.

It’s ego, flowing in more than one direction. It can build you up or pull you down, but when you let that untamed sense of self take the wheel, you’re not doing the work.

And if you can only focus on one thing at a time, it’s better to train yourself to focus on the work, and not worry about shame, praise, or imagined distant futures. Like Andy Warhol said:

”Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they’re deciding, make even more art.”

The same can be said about yourself. Focus on whether or not you enjoy the work that you’re doing, and whether you can joyfully give your attention to the work. Spend your effort on making the work the best it can be.

You’re a person who has value outside of your work. To the people who care about you, you can never be an impostor. Try your best not to confuse your assessment of your work with a measurement of your worth.

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Your vote matters. You matter.

Election Day 2016, my wife and I took our daughter to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which is easily in Sprout’s top five all-time favorite places on Earth. On our way back, while our daughter napped in her car seat, we hopped off the freeway to re-caffeinate at a McDonald’s.

As I pulled up to the window to pay, the woman behind the counter noticed our “I Voted” stickers and said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t do that today.”

We asked if she was registered and when she got off her shift, to make sure she still had time. But then she said,

“But really, it’s just a choice between death and… death.”

She didn’t see any substantive difference between the presidential candidates, and gave us a nihilistic, too-cool-for-civics soundbite to justify shrugging off voting.

And that interaction has haunted me ever since.

I know not voting by choice isn’t the whole picture. I know there are numerous laws designed to reduce the turnout for eligible voters, or actions taken to close polling places to depress turnout. I know that registering people to vote is seen in some quarters as a partisan act instead of a civic duty.

But I want to speak to one small portion of the conversation: The idea that there are people out there who are registered to vote, who are able to vote, but who haven’t definitely committed to vote.

I’ve been teaching a class that’s new to me focusing on media, journalism, and civic engagement. Being that it’s a step outside of my previous wheelhouse, I’ve been looking for how to judge whether my teaching is making an impact.

I haven’t had to look that hard because of the number of times students have done one or more of the following:

  • Told me directly that they made sure they registered to vote because of class
  • Used an exercise in class as a reason to talk to other people about current political issues and how it’s relating to their vote
  • Asked me for help finding non-partisan resources to help educate themselves on who and what is on their ballot

The thing I tell them is that so long as they’re registered, they definitely have the time to figure out how they want to vote.

Because voting isn’t like dating, where you need to find someone that matches with you personally and excites you in ways you don’t think you’ll tire of. It’s not like ordering off a menu, where you expect that what you pick will immediately satisfy you.

Voting is charting a course into the unknown. It’s thinking about where you want to go and who you think will help navigate us in that general direction.

You’re not voting for any one person. You’re voting for a destination. You’re traveling into the future, headed to the country that you want this place to become.

And if we lose sight of the destination, we can choose another navigator. But without a strong sense of where we want to go; without a clear mandate backed up by a large turnout of potential voters, the entire journey will be undermined.

When fewer people vote, more power ends up in the hands of pollsters, pundits, and bloviating partisans. Instead of a true picture of who we are, we get inference and divination. The more people who vote, the less room there is for speculation about “the actual opinion” of the nation.

But if you still want to say that your vote doesn’t matter, let me ask you this:

What do you mean by “matter?”

Do you need to be the tie-breaking vote for your vote to mean something to you?

Do you need to have everything you vote for succeed for your vote to mean something to you?

Is it enough to know that your vote matters because you’re keeping the system of elected officials accountable to one more person?

Is it enough to know that your vote signals that there’s one more person out there who cares about where we’re headed? One more person paying attention?

If that’s not enough, don’t stop at voting.

If you feel like your vote doesn’t matter then find something to do with the other days in the year to support what you voted for. Politics and civic debate doesn’t just happen one day every two years.

If you want your voice to matter, voting is just the start of the journey. So make sure you take that first step.

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When Sprout wants me to make up a story to tell her, she says “Tell me a story with your mouth.”

Usually she asks for this when she’s supposed to be falling asleep, and she knows I won’t turn the light back on to read one (or four) more books.

The other day, I was feeling pretty worn out, so I asked her if she’d tell me a story with her mouth instead. “But I don’t know how.”

Jumping over to physicist Richard Feynman:

Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But a few days later he returned and said, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.” (source)

I was challenging myself to see if I could break down how to tell a story for a three-and-a-half year old. What I came up with was:

  • Pick someone
  • They’re trying to do something they like
  • Something makes it difficult to do that thing

It’s a setup she’s familiar with, from Moana to Daniel Tiger to Elephant & Piggie.

So I asked her who the story should be about. She chose Fletcher. If you haven’t met Fletcher before, he’s a stuffed fox from Target that Rosie got for her first birthday and has loved since first sight. Here he is:

IMG_6425.jpg

“Okay,” I said, “so what does Fletcher like to do?”

“Paint!”

“And when Fletcher goes to paint, what’s something that could go wrong.”

She thought for a moment. Then it dawned on her. “A volcano!”

“That’s cool! But what about something that could go wrong while he’s painting?”

“He could open the paint and there’s a volcano inside.”

We’ll work on plausibility and foreshadowing later.

 

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The Be Here Now Box

Last semester I chose to take a stand on student phone use in class.

I wasn’t just getting the occasional person doing a bad job hiding that they were texting in the middle of class. People would take out their phones multiple times during an hour-long lecture. People would keep earbuds in. People in the front row would sit staring at their phones for extended periods, right in front of me.

Talk to any educator and you’ll get plenty of kids-these-days gripes on the subject (as if kids always paid 100% attention to classes before phones). But phones do present a particular, difficult problem.

Teaching at a university instead of at a high school or middle school, I didn’t want to use an authoritarian demand for phones to stay out of the classroom with draconian penalties would only make students work slightly harder to hide phone use, and would force me to distract myself from teaching to enforce it.

I had to think about the underlying problem. If this were just about making sure I had all eyes on me for the entire lecture, it would feel like an ego problem, and it would be easier to deal with that by adjusting my expectations and taking some time for self reflexion. I could solve that problem more easily than convincing a room full of adults to stop touching their phones.

But looking at the work my students turned in, I saw there was a different reason to question their phone use: focus. With so many students getting marked down on their assignments for unforced errors that showed they weren’t focusing, I had a larger beast to slay than students not paying attention in class.

They weren’t paying attention to what they were doing, full stop.

Whatever solution I proposed had to be voluntary (so I could avoid the enforcement problem). It had to be persuasive. It had to use social pressure.

That’s when I came up with THE BE HERE NOW BOX.

FullSizeRender.jpg

The best part about having a box is that you’ve got a physical prop. Something to hold up and point to. A novel object that draws attention.

I made my pitch: This isn’t about me — It’s about you. You’re not getting the class you’re paying for if you don’t pay attention. You’re giving up control of your attention by letting something distracting sit within arm’s reach for this hour. You may think that it doesn’t effect your attention, but studies show that multi-tasking not only reduces willpower but cognitive performance.

Being next to your phone distracts you, and you won’t even perceive any change in your attentiveness or mental ability.

So, if they were able; if they didn’t have any pending obligation or potential emergency that might require them to take immediate action, I asked them to make a choice: To take control of their attention and put their phone in the box. Make one decision this hour instead of having to make the choice to ignore your phone over and over throughout the hour.

It worked. Sort of.

Some classes participated more than others. The classes that needed it the most were also the most reluctant. But I saw an overall increase in participation, and the class that put the most phones in the box had the highest grades.

Anecdotal? Sure. It definitely wasn’t a controlled study. But it happened.

But that was last semester.

I knew I wanted to bring the box back for the new semester, but I wanted to refine my pitch. I figured if there was a way to pitch it more effectively, I could get more people to try it out. If I could find a better argument, better facts, or a more persuasive opening statement…

If I could do a better job, maybe more people would give it a shot.

But what did it actually mean to do a better job? How was I measuring success? More students putting aside their phones? More consistency from the students who initially tried it out? Students telling me they made their own box at home? Better student performance on assignments, showing an increase in mindful attention?

What was a win?

I was stuck, so I decided to try blogging about it to see if I could generate a better sense of what I wanted to say. But that pointed my attention to another problem.


I have a backlog of unfinished ideas and drafts for blog posts. Some abandoned, some not even started.

Over the last year, I had some posts that were well-received. Some work I got paid to write. A few posts got more views in a month than the blog had seen in a year.

It was cool. I felt cool.

And then I felt like I needed to do more of the same thing. Or try to maximize the value of that new audience. Or just do something. Anything.

And the ideas kept piling up, but nothing got posted.

It wasn’t until I got deep into watching The Good Place that I felt like I had the language to describe what was going on with me. That feeling of my brain turning into a Möbius strip of indecision, twisting and circling with justifications, re-evaluations, and new new directions.

Nothing felt good enough, because nothing felt like it was definitely that one thing that would move me forward. That would take the “I’m a Writer” part of my career to the next level. To even help me figure out what level I was on.

Good Place - Chidi Fork Garbage Disposal.gif

I was going full-Chidi.


There’s a passage in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind about fruitless work towards a goal:

One day while he was studying under Nangaku, Baso was sitting, practicing zazen…

Nangaku saw him sitting like a great mountain or like a frog. Nangaku asked, “What are you doing?” “I am practicing zazen,” Baso replied. “Why are you practicing zazen?” “I want to attain enlightenment; I want to be a Buddha,” the disciple said. Do you know what the teacher did? He picked up a tile, and he started to polish it. In Japan, after taking a tile from the kiln, we polish it to give it a beautiful finish. So Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it. Baso, his disciple, asked, “What are you doing?” “I want to make this tile into a jewel,” Nangaku said. “How is it possible to make a tile a jewel?” Baso asked. “How is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?” Nangaku replied. “Do you want to attain Buddhahood? There is no Buddhahood besides your ordinary mind. When a cart does not go, which do you whip, the cart or the horse?” the master asked.

The book is one of my go-to totems for when I’m totally freaking out, and I happened to flip over to this passage. Fortunate timing.

And then I remembered a post from CJ Chilvers on the why of blogging in the present moment:

The pros advise that long-form writing (going deep into a subject) is the best way to get any real attention and deal with the way Google, Facebook and Twitter have transformed how information is consumed online. You post something epic once in a great while, and promote over and over. Attention spans are shorter and readers aren’t using RSS anymore. If you want attention and sales, you have to go out and grab the attention, then offer something with extreme value to get the authority to sell something. They’re correct.

The hobbyists (and one prominent pro — Seth Godin) profess that it’s the opposite that has the most positive impact on your life and mental health: short-form writing, and just getting your ideas out there. They’re correct.

I’ve been thinking about this in my own life and career for the past month and I think I’ve come up with a theory: one is a business model, one is a life model.

​I’ve watched this site get stale; turning instead to the pursuit of likes and retweets, and the spending too much time chasing the empty satisfaction that comes from a “good” tweet.

I haven’t spent enough time trying to see what I actually value, and what I actually want to get out of my brain and into the world.

I’ve spent so much time trying to re-define what success is, I stopped producing anything that could get me closer to… Well, any definition of feeling successful.

So, as I’m getting closer to my birthday at the end of the week, I’m resolving to be less precious this year. I’m resolving to stop treating a blog as a means to an end, but instead as an end unto itself. To focus on satisfaction instead of success.

Success is as much given as it is earned. Satisfaction doesn’t require outside intervention.

The only way I’ll be satisfied is if I learn to take pride in my words themselves instead of pride in how widely my words travel.

My phone isn’t the only thing I need to put away if I’m going to get real work done.