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Marvel and DC: A Tale of Two Students
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The final assignment in my first-year composition course is a multi-step rhetorical and linguistic analysis of an argument:
- We first read to learn about key terms used in analysis
- We annotate an argument together
- Students compose a multimodal piece to illustrate analytical terms
- Students annotate another argument in small groups
- We jointly create a thesis, outline, and sample paragraphs of an analysis essay
- Students annotate an article of their choosing and draft a working thesis
- Students draft their papers in class before attending a conference with me
- Students revise their work for the final portfolio
I’d like to describe how two “students” (also enrolled in a 1-credit corequisite support course) worked through this assignment.
Both students—whom I’ll call Marvel and DC—selected an essay about texting from the online collection Bad Ideas About Writing (2017). Marvel never misses class; she completed the initial steps energetically, leading her small group not only to find examples of key strategies in the text but also to discuss why those strategies made sense (or didn’t). On the first day of individual work, Marvel arrived with a printed copy of the article with copious marginal notes and color-coded highlights.
She was also ready to talk: “It looks like the writer puts every possible counterargument in the first two pages—and if you aren’t paying attention, you actually start thinking he’s making a completely different point. Then bam—right in the middle of page two, he totally shifts and you get his real point.” I asked what she thought about this strategy. “I don’t like it. I guess I see why he did it, but he spends so much time on the evidence for the other side that it kind of weakens his argument.” A thesis was born. Marvel made a bulleted outline from her thesis and annotations.
DC, on the other hand, had a slow start. She missed class when we discussed the key analytical terms—she couldn’t find a ride that morning. I posted a recording of class online, but on the morning of our first annotation practice, she had not had a chance to watch it. In her small group, DC was told to look for examples of pronoun use that indicated the writer’s presence or the reader’s presence. I explained what that meant and gave her some examples, and then she set to work: She looked for pronouns in the argument much the way we search for Waldo, without any understanding of why she was looking. I urged her to watch the video from the class she missed. On the first individual workday, she admitted she had not yet watched the video—but she had a thesis ready: “This essay says that texting makes you a terrible writer.” The essay, of course, said exactly the opposite, but the student had not made it past the first two pages in her reading. I urged her to finish reading the essay, and then we’d identify the writer’s claim. Her own thesis for the analysis could wait.
During conference week, Marvel arrived with a full draft—a draft she herself had revised at least twice. After discussing the writer’s approach, we addressed some focus shifts in her paragraphs and talked about word choice—she tested out options to see what my reaction was to each. She left confident about her paper.
DC arrived for her conference 20 minutes late, flustered because she did not remember where my office was located. She brought no draft, but a revised thesis and detailed outline. The wording of her thesis sounded familiar: she had taken a sample thesis from class along with an outline we created together for a different essay. Neither fit her chosen article. When I pointed this out, she answered, “That’s what the writing fellow told me to do.” (It was clear from the writing fellow’s notes that this was not the case.) We began again to discuss options for a working thesis for the essay. She ultimately created a thesis, a reasonable outline, and a very rough draft of the essay, which was submitted in the final portfolio. “Rough” in this case means that she had not edited for conventions, and in a couple of paragraphs, she offered just a bulleted list of anticipated points. The works cited list contained only a link.
The Marvels in my classes earn As and Bs consistently, and I enjoy teaching them. Some tell me they have started to love writing again. But the DCs are much more often on my roster (not always in my classroom), struggling with transportation, internet access, lack of familiarity with academics and formal literacy. Some arrived in the US during the final two years of high school; they are still learning English.
Both Marvel and DC deserve an education; they deserve my attention, my best effort. Marvel will earn a passing grade and move on. But what about DC? One could say she has “earned” an F grade: missing class, coming late, showing up unprepared. She just needs to take responsibility, right? But… she cannot access internet regularly at home. The Wi-Fi hotspots in the campus parking lots will not help her. She is frequently late to class, at the mercy of someone who gives her a ride. While I cannot in good conscience move her to the next class, an F seems like an undeserved insult. What she needs is more time, more resources, and (perhaps) a little encouragement to continue. I would love her grade to be “making progress,” because she is. But our institutions aren’t designed with DCs in mind—we ask DCs to become Marvels in order to succeed, and we ask our corequisite faculty to make sure this transformation happens. If it doesn’t, we all get Fs.
I guess we need a superhero.
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