Write This Down

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The assignment books they sold at the abattoir of a “school” I went to were about as big as a pack of notebook paper. Given how much homework we were all assigned there, those assignment books were kind of a necessity, and I don’t like remembering how many late nights I had to spend crossing every item out of each daily column in those books one-by-one. I couldn’t find those assignment books when I went off to college, so I bought smaller ones that I found at department stores, and not only did I find that I didn’t need so much space to jot down all the homework assignments I got in college, but I was remembering a lot more from my classes anyway. The English professor I had at the University of Toledo who consistently assigned the least homework in her classes was the one whose classes I remembered (and still remember) the most from, and I refuse to believe that’s a coincidence.

Assigning homework in my classes is a constant balancing act for me. On the one hand, I firmly believe that smaller homework loads are generally better (as long as the homework assignments are effective), and I’ve dealt with enough teachers who’ve acted like their students should spend all their waking hours studying for that class (never mind all the other classes those students are taking, any jobs they may have to work, and whatever social lives they can cobble together) that I generally err on the side of assigning too little homework instead of too much. However, many of my students are coming to me without having had an opportunity to develop any significant critical thinking skills (yet another reason why the standardized test brigade has been one of the most deleterious forces in modern American history), and as hard as I work to help my students develop those skills in my classes, my students need to do a lot of work outside of my classes to really firm those skills up, to help them handle the challenges they’re going to keep facing both in and out of academia.

Two additional problems have been complicating my efforts to help my students through homework. The first is that the transactional nature of education fostered by the corporate reformers — reducing everything to grades without taking into account the panoply of factors that influence the educational process for each individual student — has caused some students to be so focused on their grades that they often won’t do any work that doesn’t directly impact their final grade for the course. By the time a student enters higher education, their previous schooling should have helped them develop good study habits, and an understanding that all the work they’re assigned in a class will ultimately affect their ability to complete the work that they’ll be graded on, even if their instructors don’t use things like pop quizzes to gauge whether or not students are actually doing homework. The whole “Is this gonna be on the test” mentality has been around for generations, but I’ve been teaching for long enough that I’ve been able to notice a strong correlation between students not doing homework and students coming from cities where corporate school “reform” has taken deep root.

More recently, though, the increasing shift to visual communication, as students abandon more text-driven forms of social media like Twitter and Facebook, and turn instead to services like Instagram, means that students are more likely to take photos instead of write things down. Even though I don’t do many activities in my classes that require note-taking, I do write homework assignments on my whiteboard, and instead of writing these assignments down, a growing number of my students are just snapping a photo of the assignment on their smartphones, instead of writing them down. I can’t help but wonder how effective that really is at helping students remember their homework, though.

I always try to make sure that I don’t normalize my experiences when I compare them to other people’s, and that’s even more true for my students (especially now that I’m as old as many of their parents). My experiences with writing and memory may not be that typical anyway; I spend many hours every day in front of a computer keyboard, and I couldn’t imagine writing essays or novels without the benefit of a desktop computer, but I still have to write journals and poetry by hand because typing those up just feels awkward. I gather that many writers have the same experience of needing to use handwriting for certain forms of writing, but we writers tend to be pretty far removed from most broader societal definitions of “normal” to start with.

Google Calendar is a blessing for me when it comes to keeping a schedule, not only for the visualizations it gives me on my phone and tablet, but also for the helpful reminder alarms I get before all my classes and such. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that when I need to create a to-do list, I have to write that down, usually on a sticky note that I can stuff into my shirt pocket and drop onto whatever desk I’m working at. That may just be force of habit for me, since I didn’t grow up with all this new technology, but I think there may be something to writing down a to-do list that makes it more powerful than just taking a photo of every “action item” in my day, and I wonder if the same thing may be true for my students as well.

I can’t stand all the out-of-touch jerks who claim that younger people are “obsessed” with selfies and Instagram and such, especially when those same people almost certainly would have used them to no end if the technology had been around earlier. (There’s some naked classism at work in those arguments, but that’s a subject for another time.) I probably wouldn’t have used that technology much because I’m more of a word-oriented person (I have an Instagram, but I use it exclusively to promote my books, whereas I’m far more active on my other social media accounts), but even when I take into account how my students have grown up in an increasingly media-driven age, I have to wonder if having my assignment as just another “snapshot” in the daily photo album on their smartphone, instead of an item written down in a dedicated to-do list for their classes, is really that effective.

Maybe my bias towards writing is showing here, and my lack of lived experience growing up with this technology means that I can’t understand how it’s reshaped the way young minds think. For all I know, having my homework assignment floating among all their selfies and other photos from the day is far better for them than writing something down in an antiquated assignment book. I’m sure that there will be plenty of studies of this phenomenon in the years to come, so I may be better off remembering that I’m just an amateur at this stuff, and my best course of action right now may be simply to keep observing my students and seeing how their actions influence their ability to get work done in my classes.

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