Which is the gift?

Today a student came in to my office to talk with me about its final paper. It actually had a finished copy of the paper, along with what seemed to be a gift bag with nice tissue embellishments.

I thanked it for the bag and put it aside, remarking that I would open it when the student was no longer my student. Then I took the paper and began to look it over. Meanwhile the student, glowing with pride and accomplishment, told me the story of how the paper came together – how, in thinking about how to synthesize its first two papers it had poked at a little research, found something unfamiliar, followed it up, found something fascinating, followed it up, and ended up with something that was dramatically richer and more interesting than anything it had ever done before.

This student thought gen ed World History was going to be an unpleasant waste of its time, and was initially put off by my loopy, open-ended style. This is the student who later said that the class made it realize it had not known how to think critically.

I looked the paper over. It was well-written and full of research and thought. I could see I was going to learn things I didn’t know. I asked the student what the main theme of its new understanding was. What it told me was terrific but only tangentially stated in the first paragraph, which was otherwise excellent, so I suggested it make its point more explicit and review the paper one last time for focused development of that point. The last edit that goes from A- to A.

Christmas has come early for this teacher. I really don’t care what’s in the bag.


  1. I think the satisfaction you’re describing is the satisfaction a reflective teacher feels at watching a student learn how to conduct a reflective research and writing process. The process you describe has an independence and integrity to it that a more typical student process wouldn’t necessarily have. And the feedback you gave at the end is essentially collegial rather than didactic, the kind of thing you’d do for a colleague. No wonder you were pleased.

  2. Ha! Thank you Dave, that really helps me bring my own theme into focus. And I can’t help noticing you modeling the same reflective collegiality with me, as usual.

    Trying to find patterns in these good moments, I am a lot more comfortable with a relationship of equals, and I do my best work with students who take to this based on a pre-existing competence, responsibility, and sense of agency. I think I show the others something cool, but they don’t know what to do with it yet and may not figure it out in a semester, or even two. This can be frustrating for them and me, which is where the bad moments can happen.

  3. Oh, sure, but this is as much a developmental issue as anything else. Sometimes it’s a matter of showing them the right way to go, then waiting the two or three years it takes for them to absorb it and put it into effect.

  4. Yeah, agreed. Any thoughts about how to talk with assessment / evaluation / assessment folks about this? The problem is that the process doesn’t lend itself to simple definition of variables, doesn’t produce immediate measurables, and may even be initially retrograde as bad but functional habits are replaced with better but initially inexpert ones.

  5. I’ve been wrestling with this a lot, because I just finished a really interesting “Intro to Doctoral Studies” course for new PhDs in Literary Studies, Creative Writing/Lit studies, and Rhet/Comp. The students are all advanced, but their skills are unevenly distributed, even within the three populations. Almost all the writing was a combination of reflective and descriptive assignments, designed to get them to look at things like journals or jobs in their field and reflect on what was there for them professionally. So grading/evaluating this kind of work feels irrelevant. Do you grade down, for example, for insufficiently reflective work? Some students will naturally turn to the easy, procedural way to complete assignments without thinking about them, but my feedback cannot be to do that for them. I can tell the difference between the unreflective and reflective student work, but it seems harder to point out a moment in someone else’s writing and tell them that they could have tried harder in this or that spot. We’re very far away from the notion of “error correction,” but it’s unclear what the feedback is supposed to do for the student resistant to/somewhat oblivious of/ reflection.

  6. Right. I think that ‘I know it when I see it’ thing is really important. I keep asking students who get it what happened, and they keep saying ‘dunno, it just clicked’. Maybe there’s a level of meta-reflection where a more satisfactory description and analysis become possible, but if so I don’t know how to get there from here. In the meantime I think it’s a feel thing, like jazz or bread as we’ve been discussing at DV. That is, emergent, in the sense that lots of variables have to align in the right dynamic.

    I suppose that’s why Ken Bain focuses on creation of enabling learning environments in the interview you link at the UH blog. Beyond that you can’t actually get too specific. And therefore it’s really hard to talk about in the positivistic terms strategic learners and excellence-seeking administrators / accrediters understand – it just seems arbitrary or wifty from those perspectives. But it’s really helpful to suspend their kind of judgment for a second to foster the new mindset, and the academy seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

  7. I’m including a DOI link to an interesting article about teacher training and reflection by Hatton and Smith in Teacher and Teacher Education (1995). I’m thinking about this in the context of both my teaching and the work I do in our teaching center. [let me know if this doesn’t work]


    I hadn’t realized there was an entire literature in teacher education about the pitfalls of reflective teaching models, but this and other discussions have been useful for me to understand some of the dynamics of my own class. One of the points here is that the notion of “evidence” for reflection is inherently problematic, given the impossibility of outside verification or internal certainty. In some ways, it’s easier to recognize by subsequent production/action/creativity/improvement, which is perhaps how reflection gets externalized. In other words, do we see a difference in performance? Then perhaps some degree of reflection has occurred.

  8. I think that ‘I know it when I see it’ thing is really important. I keep asking students who get it what happened, and they keep saying ‘dunno, it just clicked’.

    This is a particular worry of mine. I’ve had a couple of students with real issues doing what their course wanted of them, these last two years, who’ve come through them, and while obviously I’ve tried to model planning and thinking about essay questions and organising their work for them, as well as simply telling them ways to do it, I’ve yet to see much direct correlation between my crisis tutorials and their coming good. The coming good comes later. As a result I’ve never been sure it’s actually me that’s helping them. And as you say here, they can’t explain what changed before the point where they started turning in good essays. I would like to take at least some credit, but it feels dishonest without a clearer view of the instructional cause and effect….

  9. I think the problem is at least partly that we get pushed by the metrics into simplistic linear models of cause and effect that we would never accept in our scholarly work. I mean obviously there are multiple pushes and pulls, variables out the wazoo, feedback loops, inertias, dampeners, catalysts and accelerants, creative destructions, and so on, yet somehow we’re supposed to be producing smooth input-output progress curves. So I feel like what you want is a rate of clickage where it’s hard after awhile to remember specific instances. But it’s inevitable that they’ll be conditioned and enabled by a far wider interactive field than just us, so if we’re doing it right together you’ll happen to be around for some of ‘mine’ and I’ll get some of ‘yours’.

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