Learning as a living organism: DePaul professor prioritizes livelihood above all else in his classroom

 DePaul Professor Eric Plattner types poems as part of the Chicago Poetry Collective's  Poems While You Wait at the Buena Park Arts Expo in July 2013.  (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Rooney)
DePaul Professor Eric Plattner types poems as part of the Chicago Poetry Collective’s Poems While You Wait at the Buena Park Arts Expo in July 2013. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Rooney)

“How many of you have written something you don’t give a shit about?”

That’s the question Eric Plattner asks his Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse (WRD) students on the first day of each quarter.

Almost every student raises his or her hand.

“Okay. What do you call someone who writes something that they don’t believe in, but pretends to believe in it anyway?” he asks.

“A phony; a liar; a hypocrite,” they typically answer.

The laundry list of names is just the beginning of what Plattner deems as “breaking the mold” that many high school students are taught to fit in to. Avoiding contractions, first person and dangling modifiers aren’t as significant in Plattner’s class as they are in the high school classrooms that freshmen hail from.

Instead, he emphasizes a larger picture: critical thinking, awareness and livelihood within his students’ writing and within the classroom.

It might start outside of it, though. You can find Plattner on the steps outside of the Schmidt Academic Center or at the tables on the side of the Arts and Letters building. In the navy blue, worn out factory uniform that he’s worn daily for the past few years, he is not hard to miss, and he will typically be meeting with one of his approximately 46 WRD students: a conference commitment he requires them and himself to partake in on a weekly basis.

“I use contract grading — I’ve rejected the traditional grading system,” he said.

“One essential component of that is conferencing — embracing the process of draft, feedback and revision. And the way I handle feedback is one-on-one conferencing.”

With an average of 45 students per quarter, that means approximately nine hours extra per week, an amount of time and work that his salary does not reflect. For him, it’s worth it.

“If I’m going to require them to embrace their process, then I have to require myself to be available for it, and that means three hours after each day of teaching and also three hours on Fridays,” he said. “The ultimate goal is that they grow from it.”

A typical 10-minute conference consists of leading questions and, at times, harsh criticism; it is the face-to-face and audio components of the feedback that allow Plattner to give his students substantial comments in a short amount of time.

“Let’s say someone brings a piece of writing where their language is lacking energy or life; I’m going to pounce on that — in a humorous, fun, positive and human way — but my goal is to know why, for them to know why and for them to be aware that there’s other ways of doing it,” Plattner said.
“That can happen in 10 minutes. That alone would take me 20 minutes to try to find the right way of wording that in a marginal comment.”

These conferences and Plattner’s teaching style combined are not always received well by students who come to class with a clear idea about how they have been taught to write.

Melanie Kulatilake, a former student of Plattner’s, said that, though there has been little resistance to Plattner’s approach in the classroom, when there is, it’s because students are not used to having professors as honest and dedicated as Plattner.

“Professor Plattner will say, ‘Screw what your other professors tell you about how to write an essay; they should never tell you. This is your paper, not theirs,’” Kulatilake said. “Some students don’t like that.”Although students might not be used to it, conferences and contract grading are a long-lasting tradition in academia, as well as something that distinguished Plattner from other applicants 15 years ago when he first applied, according to Eileen Seifert, the director of Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse who hired Plattner in the summer of ’99.

“I wouldn’t have cared what he was wearing,” Seifert said in regards to Plattner’s tradition of wearing the same outfit consistently over long periods of time (at the time of the interview, it was suit and tie). “Frankly we don’t pay people enough that they’re going to come in with Hugo Boss suits. What I thought was interesting was when he told me about his conferences with his students. I also saw his experience at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop — one thing that made him highly qualified for the position as well.”

Plattner discovered his love for teaching amidst pursuing a career in journalism, where he would find himself in trying to help his classmates with revision rather than a story itself. Although he forfeited a career in the field, he said journalism was his saving grace.

A self-identified “unambitious person,” Plattner spoke of the passion that the mystery of journalism brought to his life, which later transferred to writing in general. It was a class in the history of modern Africa, though, that really did him in.

“Everything in my life has happened unintentionally,” he said. “How did I get my first girlfriend? I met eyes with her in a history of modern Africa class. I wasn’t brave enough to talk to her, to tell her I loved her, so I would follow her to where she would go after class. Little did I know, she would lead me to the writing center.”

As an undergraduate writing tutor at Fresno State, Plattner found not only his first love, but his love for teaching, and moreover, for conferencing.

“I totally fell in love with what you see me doing out there — my teaching method — and that’s where I learned it,” he said. “It  was in that writing center where I learned that I had a closer relationship to my fellow students than their teachers did. And I thought, ‘As a teacher, I’ll never let that happen.’ ”

Plattner, whose mother was a 50- year veteran in the field, never felt he had teaching in his blood before that moment. Growing up with a disdain for academia in general, neither Platter nor his worrisome mother had any idea where he would end up. When unwanted challenges or tasks arose, he’d avoid them at all costs, never quite “rolling up his sleeves” to “cope with the real world.”

“I never coped with the real world in any other way except trying to erase or avoid it,” he said. “I don’t apologize for it in any way at all, though. I consider most of the things we are asked to do, at best, either a waste of time or, at worst, toxic waste.”Childhood experiences and outlooks like these, though, are what help him relate to unsure, insecure or fearful writers, he said.

“My strengths as a teacher are that I wasn’t a good student — I understand what fear, anxiety and uncertainty are; though, I don’t want to alleviate that uncertainty,” he said. “In fact I really push my students towards what they are uncertain about, but I also want to completely alleviate them that that’s what the point is.

In terms of his factory uniform, he says it’s indicative of this exact feeling:
“My whole dressing the same — that started at age 10. That was clearly a reaction to uncertainty and unpredictability and as a way to remain myself amidst an unknown, changing world,” he said.
Aside from his current outfit which reads “Paul” on the left side of his chest pocket — a tribute to his late father — past outfits include: a corduroy suit with a red Cardinals T-shirt underneath, a few variations of jeans with a plaid button down and a mix of two or three different black suits and silver ties.

According to Seifert, his outfit doesn’t affect his teaching style or ability whatsoever. If anything, it affects the way students view him, and at DePaul this might be a positive thing.
“I think DePaul students are pretty flexible and open people. One reason he flourishes is because we have students who want something different,” Seifert said, referring to not only his appearance, but his teaching style as well.

But when students ask about his outfit, Plattner said there’s a larger parallel between inquiry regarding rhetoric and inquiry regarding his appearance than one would think.
“When you talk about rhetoric and awareness, you’re talking about becoming aware of language and norms in terms of words themselves, not so you can just analyze an essay and chart it out, but so that you can start reflecting on your own use of words and understanding,” he said. “If what I’m wearing manifests some interruption of that norm, then that’s good. It’s exactly where I want them to be — asking, ‘Why do you do this?’ or ‘Why do you do that?’”

Ultimately, this inquiry leads to larger questions, fostering critical thinking and awareness of every decision one makes — each of which contribute to Plattner’s main goal for his students: growth.

“You can be an amazing writer in the class with great ideas and lively tone,” he said. “But if you don’t fulfill any of the contract requirements, I’ll give you a C.”

The average grade in Plattner’s class is a B, determined by evaluation based contract criteria including requirements such as conference attendance, reading class material and active participation including engaged reactions and listening to class discussion.

According to Plattner, and inspired by contract grading pioneer Peter Elbow, these criteria are what will ultimately foster individual growth.Although Seifert speaks highly and respectfully of Plattner’s teaching methodology, she is somewhat skeptical of contract grading.

“Contract grading is controversial because some people feel like you shouldn’t get a grade just for showing up,” she said. I guess I am sort of concerned, given how truly hard the world is, that maybe people need to be used to a little bit more — that just showing up is not the whole story.”
Regardless of her own methodology, Seifert expressed a sense of gratitude for the contribution that Plattner has made to the WRD department and his dedication to the development of his students.

“I feel really lucky that he’s at DePaul,” she said. “He really has a carefully and well-thought out philosophy of teaching. He’s interested in making students feel alive and get away from approaching learning as mechanical, follow-the-rules, teach-the-test kind of thing. He wants them to be very alert, alive, critical readers. He ultimately want them to have the experience of creating a text that actually means something to them.”

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