Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ask An English 100 Instructor Who is Getting Tired of Grading Portfolios

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Dear English 100 Instructor,

I have been married for five years, and until about a year ago I thought I was part of a happy couple. Then I began to suspect that something was wrong: my wife started working late several nights a week, she received numerous "work-related" phone calls and text messages at all hours, and she would leave for days at a time (usually on the weekends) for "business trips." She became very defensive when I asked her where she was going or pointed out that she was unemployed. Lately things have gotten worse. She moved out of our bedroom because my snoring kept her up at night, and then she moved all of her belongings to my friend Larry's house because she "needed space." She comes home for food once or twice a week, but she refuses to let me touch her; she says I "disgust [her]," that I "can't please [her] like Larry does," and that she is "definitely having an affair with Larry." I'm beginning to suspect that she is cheating on me. What should I do?

- Concerned About my Wife

Dear CAW,

This is a great letter. You've done a really nice job responding to my feedback on your first draft, especially in terms of your overall organization. In this draft you've given a nice sense of chronology so that you really build to your conclusion, rather than just listing information in an unstructured manner.

I am particularly impressed by the richness and variety of details that you include in this piece. You do a great job of showing me something about your wife instead of just telling me that she's cheating on you. Think about how these details give your piece a sense of what types of things upset her. That's fantastic.

For your next piece, I want you to think more carefully about your paragraph structure. Would you really say that you have a topic sentence here? What does that leave out for your reader? Might you be better off with two paragraphs instead of one? Furthermore, even though you include a great deal of evidence, you are leaving a significant burden on your reader to perform the analytical work. It's your job, not theirs (or mine) to draw conclusions from your evidence, and to demonstrate how the evidence supports the claim you are making in your topic sentence.

Finally, be sure to cite your sources. There are a number of unattributed quotations in your letter - I assume that it is your wife speaking, but I may only know that through our conferences and from previous drafts. You'll also want to include a Works Cited List (but we'll talk more about that in Sequence 2).

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Dear English 100 Instructor,

I lost my job last month, but I can't bring myself to tell my family. My savings have all but evaporated in the stock market, and yesterday my wife surprised me by buying plane tickets to Hawaii for a "second honeymoon." She was shocked when I burst into tears, but I managed to tell her it was because I had always wanted to go to Hawaii, and not because I am about to default on my second mortgage. I know I can no longer afford the Metro tickets I buy every morning when I pretend to go into the office; I know I am going to have to sell my house and move in with my parents; I know I am probably going to have to see my children to the Chinese. I have already sold one of my kidneys on the black market, but my cash is running out and my bookie has become more and more persistent that I pay my outstanding debts (I never should have bet $100K on the Cardinals). Still I can't bring myself to tell my wife. What should I do?

- Down on My Luck

Dear DOML,

This is a solid letter, but I'm not sure you've done a good enough job responding to some of the comments I have made on your previous draft. Although you include enough details to convince your reader of the seriousness of your situation, there is absolutely no sense of organization in this letter. The end of your letter repeats information from the beginning, and there's no reason that you couldn't share the information about your bookie before you told the story about the plane tickets to Hawaii.

Furthermore, you have not provided nearly enough background information here. How did you lose your job? What type of job did you have? What kind of salary did you make? Why will it be necessary to sell your children, and how much do you expect to make?
Your writing is certainly better than it has been in the past, and I applaud the work have done to fix all of your comma splices. Still, though, I think you tend to use one sentence where three would do. How many semicolons have you used here? Might it be better to divide up those unbearably long phrases to give your reader a rest? Look back, specifically, at your third sentence, which has three separate independent clauses. That's the type of thing I expect you to clean up when revising your work.

Ultimately, I don't think you have done a good enough job responding to the question I posed to you at the end of your first draft: so what? Why should I care about any of this?

* * *
Dear English 100 Instructor,

The recent news story about the chimpanzee who mauled his owner's friend has really affected my relationship with my own chimpanzee. I've had Zeke for 8 years, and he's never hurt a fly, but I worry that he too will "go ape s###". I think he can sense that there's something wrong, but I don't want to get rid of him. What should I do?

- Worried About My Monkey

Dear WAMM,

You clearly have not put enough effort into revising this piece. Even if you have a number of good ideas, you don't do enough to flesh them out. You do not even consider some of the most basic questions your reader might ask of you: How can you tell that your chimpanzee can sense that something is wrong? Why don't you want to get rid of him? What would that entail? What would the consequences be? Why do you own a chimpanzee named Zeke in the first place?

You still have not met the length requirement, which is spelled out on the assignment sheet. You have not even addressed any of the typographical errors I pointed out. How many times do I have to tell you to put the period INSIDE the quotation marks? How many times to I have to tell you to spell out "eight"? I can't fix these things for you.

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Dear English 100 Instructor,

I have been accused of a serious crime (which I cannot discuss in this context). The incident in question occurred when I was intoxicated, and I have no memory of it - but I know I am innocent, because I would never do anything like that. The trial is about to begin, and I suspect that my lawyer thinks I'm guilty. What should I do?

- Defendant in Trouble

Dear DIT,

Fine. Keep up the good work.

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