Balance is the Challenge

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Derek's comments on the last post have me thinking about finding the balance between invention and expectation, between uniformity and diversity, between heuristic and rubric and creativity and innovation. For me, these are not just questions for individual assignments or individual courses; instead they're the kind of concerns I struggle with as the local WPA. On the one hand, I want students to learn X or Y rhetorical form or critical thinking skill but on the other hand I want students to practice J and K kinds of originality and individualism. On the one hand, I want a common set of outcomes and a fairly uniform student experience but on the other hand I want teachers to be able to innovate in their courses since that innovation can then enrich the program as a whole. Balance is the challenge. In terms of my classes, the problem often manifests itself for me in the "class argument." In any given set of papers I find the same argument in a good chunk of them, an argument that invariably reflects class discussion or group work. It reflects, too, what students come to understand of the rubric and my own expectations. Here are some ways I try to find a better balance:
  • I try to allow multiple paths into my assignments. I try to word them so that you can argue any side, so that you can start your thinking from any personal opinion, so that you can be as creative as you'd like. At the same time, since my weaker students tend to flounder with an assignment that's too broad and open-ended, I also provide a set of questions for thinking about the assignment, questions which provide direction and structure for those students who need it.
  • I take difficulty into account when grading. I tell my classes it's like diving: go for a more difficult maneuver and even if you don't nail it your score will reflect that you tried something new, above, and beyond. In many ways, then, a paper that takes risks is better positioned from the get go than a safe paper.
  • I harness the class when I can. So, for example, a rubric generated out of class discussion is less an imposition from above and more a common agreement of expectations.
Not ideal, but I don't think it can be. I think the kind of balance Derek is prompting in his comments is and must be a struggle. You know, in Chaos/Complexity Theory (an odd little interest of mine) the goal of any complex adaptive system is to reach what's called "the edge of chaos," a surprisingly robust state between the death of static stagnation and total chaos. I guess that's what I need to aim for continually in my teaching and my program--the edge of chaos. BTW, the tailbone is a bit better today. Lotsa rest (on my tummy was best), hot baths, and tylenol seem to have done the trick.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.