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Re: Please refrain from writing “who cares?” “so what?” and other similar statements when grading student papers.

The writing centre gets busy at this time of year as the term draws to a close and essays and assignments are nearing their due date. Many students are coming in with earlier assignments to seek advice on improving their next assignment. A number of these assignments from a number of different disciplines have words such as “who cares?” written across the top of a page or in the margins of the assignment. This is poor marking practice for at least two reasons: 1. It is not an informative means for the marker to make their point. 2. It is really discouraging to students.

First, the point that I believe markers are trying to convey by these phrases is something like: “explain further…” “what are the implications of x for y?” “What do you mean by x?” “why is x important to your thesis?” and so forth. These points are precise and inform the student how to go on; that is, they offer information about what to improve for the student’s next paper. They give a well-specified means of identifying precisely which expectations of clear writing have not been met. In contrast, “so what?” or “who cares?” do not specify which elements of clear writing have been violated. A student who receives this latter annotation is not likely to understand how to improve their next paper. The great irony of writing “so what?” on a student paper is that the marker intends to convey to the student that the student has been insufficiently clear either in the description or in connecting the description to the thesis. But what the marker has written is itself unclear and imprecise. Do not model in your grading the very same writing characteristics you are trying to dissuade your students from using.

Second, students find comments such as “who cares?” and “so what?” to be very dismissive and insulting. These comments are discouraging because they do not offer instruction on how to improve the next time around, but they are also discouraging because they imply that the student’s point is unimportant or uninteresting. Rather than encouraging further development (as the comment, “explain further” would do), the comment “who cares?” discourages further development because the marker is conveying that no one would care about this point. The student is unlikely to interpret this phrase as an invitation to elaborate, and is instead more likely to interpret this phrase as a suggestion that the point should be erased. The marker intends the phrase to be asking for further elaboration, but the phrase in fact conveys the exact opposite: that no elaboration is needed because the point is unimportant (or worse, “stupid”).

Few students cry at the writing centre, but of those that do most of them have “so what?” or “who cares?” written somewhere on their paper. It is bad marking practice because it makes the marker recapitulate the very error they are asking students to avoid. And it is bad marking practice because it makes students feel like they are dumb and should give up on the subject. We can do better by students. Writing “who cares?” or “so what?” on a student paper is a lazy way of marking. “Explain” is just as concise and does a better job of informing students of their error.

Here are some phrases that markers can use in place of these terrible short-hand phrases:

  • More…
  • Omit
  • Explain
  • Explain further…
  • How do you know?
  • What is the connection?
  • What is your evidence?
  • What do you mean by x?
  • What is the reason for x?
  • Why is x important to your thesis?
  • What are the implications of x for y?

Another way to save ink and time is to make a marking code key and share this with the students:

  • RV = relevance?
  • EF = explain further
  • CS= comma splice

This method is even more concise than writing “So what?” but will also be more informative.

Related Reading

Wielding the Red Pen in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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[Trigger Warning: I am writing about rape again, and I will be snarky, sarcastic and otherwise more emotive in my writing than average]

If there is one thing that could be said for Penny Arcade’s handling of the criticisms of “The 6th Slave” comic, it is that they did begin a serious discussion of rape culture that is probably reaching a wider part of gaming culture than “ever before” (*hyperbole*). More non-feminist gamers are hearing this discussion than would ever hear of similar discussions of rape culture that occur in feminist gaming forums, on feminist gaming blogs, and non-gaming feminist blogs.

When I read the Debacle Timeline, I am struck by how many genuinely thoughtful posts have been created discussing the whole affair. Many of them don’t really seem to understand what feminists are trying to express by the concept of “rape culture,” but many of them do make an honest attempt. Some posts show serious reflection, and a change of mind. They also inspired the creation of Team Respect, who are pretty willing to patiently describe the aspects of rape culture to those asking about it at xkcd forums. It might be true that the debacle also started a flame-war in the blog comments, over e-mail and on twitter. But many of the actual blog posts linked through the Debacle Timeline are pretty thoughtful, for the most part.

Perhaps that is something good to come out of the whole affair. It is true many did not listen. But some did. Many have been saying they never considered such things before, and now they see differently. So congratulations to Kirby Bits for speaking her mind. And congratulations to Penny Arcade for bringing discussions of rape culture to a wider gaming audience. Too bad it had to happen in such an ugly way that probably hurt many rape victims and threatened many others along the way.

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This will be just a quick posts with some links to further reading.

Recently, the groups The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) released a survey “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey” about discrimination based on gender identity and expression in the United States. The Report abstract states:

Transgender and gender non-conforming people face rampant discrimination in every area of life: education, employment, family life, public accommodations, housing, health, police and jails, and ID documents…

Questioning Transphobia summarizes some of the findings:

  • Respondents were four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with incomes lower than $10,000
  • Respondents were twice as likely to be unemployed
  • One in four reported being fired for their gender identity or expression
  • Half said they experienced harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace
  • One in five said they experienced homelessness because of their gender identity or expression
  • 19% said they had been refused a home or apartment
  • 19% said they had been refused health care
  • 31% reported harassment or bullying by teachers
  • 41% reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6% for the general population

Similar statistics about discrimination apply to Canadians.

As Jill from Feministe writes:

Much of this discrimination, it’s worth noting, is entirely legal. Trans people are routinely left of out anti-discrimination laws that protect citizens from discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, nationality, etc.

In Canada, we have a chance to correct this problem. Bill C-389, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity and gender expression), is up for a vote in the House of Commons. The last vote was really close, passing by only 12 votes (Yeas: 143; Nays 131).

Bill C-389 is coming up for a final vote this Wednesday, February 9th. This time opponents of the bill have organized a letter-writing campaign to petition MPs to vote against the bill.

If you want to support the bill to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression, there is an online letter writing campaign organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada. If any readers are from Canada and wish to support the bill, please consider sending a letter to your MP from the link above.

I will include links for further reading below the fold.

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Elation

A picture of me dancing in my living room.

Today I finished a decent draft of my dissertation about a relational view of respect. I still have some things to smooth out, but it is now a coherent idea. I feel elated. Perhaps there will be more posts from me in the near future.

Yippi!

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About ten years ago I was at a meeting and we were discussing what the policy on female genital cutting (FGC, female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision) should be in the hospitals of the Canadian city where I was living at the time. The woman who was giving the presentation about the facts of FGC said at one point in the presentation that there was “no benefit” to FGC that could be weighted against its harms. Now, I do not support FGC in any way, but I was also quite bothered by this statement because it is one that renders the women who engage in FGC unintelligible and irrational, which makes discussing FGC with women impossible. I have been thinking about this issue again because I recently saw this video about the increasing requests for labiaplasty in Australia (The video is NSFW):

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about the different ways that we can value things. In particular I have been thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic value and how this relates to Kantian ethics through his views on respect. When we value something extrinsically (or instrumentally) we value that thing for the sake of something else. When we value something intrinsically, we value that thing for its own sake.

Kant’s major contribution to the concept of respect was to say that it was owed equally to all, in contrast to older views that honoured only those in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. Kant justifies the idea that we are each owed equal respect by talking about how each person has intrinsic value, which he calls “dignity.” Human dignity, according to Kant is the idea that we are not fungible in the way that commodities are. Dignity is a special kind of value that Kant contrasts with price. It is because persons have dignity that they are owed respect, which entails treating others always as ends in themselves (or, as intrinsically valuable), and never as mere means (as having only extrinsic value).

In North American culture we often talk about human dignity, official documents like the declaration of independence, the UN declaration of human rights, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms all contain references to human dignity or human equality that echo Kant’s concerns. The question I have is: how well do we promote this view? Although we claim to think that Kantian respect is important, that all people are born equal and are intrinsically valuable, I think we fail to promote the idea that people have intrinsic value and more often think of people in terms of their extrinsic value, particularly their usefulness or productivity.

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