Thursday, May 10, 2007


Finals week, and I'm grading away. Two sections of HEL this time, one of Chaucer, one of comp. I got sick of reading papers on the history of words, which is what I used to assign in History of the English Language, so I sent them all out to research a dialect or a sociolect for their papers this time. At the beginning of the semester, when I told them they would have to do it, they looked at me like spotlit deer, but I pointed out that most of them likely already knew or even belonged to some dialect/sociolect group they could study for their paper, and they grew interested; by midterm, with their rough drafts finished (well, most of both classes had a draft by then) they were so intrigued they were pestering me with questions; and these final papers are -- well, real papers. Actual academic studies that are a delight to read.

My history major, here from Fort Chaffee, did his on the sociolect of the recruits in basic training, noting that it's influenced by languages from all over the country and the world, since the recruits come from everywhere, and by incidents that have happened at bases all over the country. (He was also worried because several of the terms in the wordstock involved profanity, which he didn't know if that belonged in an academic paper, but I assured him they did.)

One of my factory students wrote about the sociolect of "the floor," the language of the workers -- now this is an interesting paper: she looks at what the workers do with the language of management, once it gets in their mouths, how thoroughly language is used as a tool, even a weapon, by the workers -- and effectively, if the paper is accurate.

One of the best papers, though, was from a student who went to buy a horse from a guy in Oklahoma when she was about seventeen. He spoke with this heavy Okie accent, and didn't seem so much interested in selling her the horse, but she wanted the horse, so she didn't back down. He let her pick the horse she wanted out of three in a corral; he gave her a bucket of feed, to let her try to approach the horse. (It was a mare, about two years old then.) It bit her, not the feed, but she still didn't back down. The guy stepped up and showed her what to do next, and for the next seven years, he taught her everything about how to handle horses -- what she wrote me was about his dialect, and the socialect of dealing with horses -- but what came through in the paper was how much she had learned from this guy. Near the end of the paper, she says the guy told her that when the horse bit her and she didn't run off, he knew she was worth teaching.

Now. What I am trying to decide is this: why are these papers so much better than all the other papers I have ever gotten from any of my students? And dude, they are. They're a quantum leap better. I only have, maybe, five papers that suck out of the fifty-two papers I collected from these two classes. About seven or eight more are average. The rest are really good papers -- not all are brilliant, but at least ten or twelve or them are so good I don't want to give them back.

Why? What's different about this assignment?

And how can I do it again?


heebie-geebie said...

Why? What's different about this assignment?

I would love to know the answer to this question.

Maybe track the students down (online maybe) and ask them? Something very honest about how well they did, and what exactly engaged them in this project?

delagar said...

Ooo. Good idea.