Oi! Stop complaining about student writing

[I had written this for our campus listserv, but a configuration problem rejected it. Then, I thought better of it, and decided that it would make a better blog post. The context is the semi-annual complaining about student writing that crops up at the end of the semester, invariably by people who don’t teach a lot of writing-orientated courses such as composition, and which invariably turns into, ‘How could this student have gotten a B in composition when he can’t write a lick?’.]

The causes of bad student writing are complex and generally poorly understood by those who haven’t studied it.

While it is comforting to cast aspersions on the integrity of faculty in intro-level writing classes (whether here or at community colleges), who are alleged to grade on effort, improvement, or other nonacademic reasons, this misses a key issue.

I have an ex-wife who, after graduating from law school, frequently taught adjunct sections of legal writing. At first, she was surprised by how poorly her students’ writing was–even students who’d sailed through college with A averages, and who had worked on literary magazines or newspapers.

Research on student writing, however, indicates that student writing regresses–sometimes falling utterly apart–when students encounter unfamiliar material, or are asked to think about that material in new ways. Common milestones for such failures include: entering the major, writing capstone projects, entering graduate school, taking courses in wholly unfamiliar fields, etc.

What my ex was seeing, then, was good students who were momentarily baffled by the requirement to “write like a lawyer.”

Some students are bad writers; some students are good writers outside the university, but are bad academic writers; some students are good writers who are struggling with new concepts.

Some students are good writers encountering bad or unfamiliar assignments. For example, I have a carefully sequenced set of assignments that, early in the semester, asks students to exaggerate certain qualities of their writing, in order to reflect on the process of literary analysis. The results are, at least initially, almost always “bad.” But the eventual payoff can be quite startling, as students begin to transfer the targeted skills to other assignments. Other times, I’ve been so enthralled by a specific concept that I crafted prompts that produced unreadable prose.

And some students just aren’t that into you. My wife is the most insightful reader of student writing I know, and we’ve had students in common who were good writers for her, but not for me, and vice versa. In each of those situations, the problem was that the student just wasn’t connecting with the class, whether because of differing styles, or the content, or home/work struggles, or some other reason.

I’ve taught a lot of composition, at 4 different universities, and am not blind to the challenges inflicted on us by student writing. And I’m pretty old-school in my expectations. But vague complaints about student writing in December and May are . . . unhelpful, except as meaningless venting or gratuitous insults.

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5 Responses to Oi! Stop complaining about student writing

  1. Mike Shapiro says:

    Thank you for this reminder, jbj, esp. as regards fluctuations in perceived fluency when writers encounter new genres for the first time. (I wince whenever I recall the personal statement that somehow didn’t disqualify me from grad school.)

    I would add that there is a new dimension to this as well: colleagues of mine will occasionally complain about writing, or at least grading, on Facebook and in other public venues. If we tell our students that we dislike reading their work, should we be surprised when they display similar enthusiasm when it comes to writing it?

  2. Chuck says:

    This is a very helpful explanation for why students seem to struggle with certain writing assignments. Like you, I’ve graded student writing at several universities (five, if I remember correctly), and I’ve tried to account for struggles with certain assignments. This year, for example, my students very clearly struggled with a rhetorical analysis assignment, something that I found surprising (students at other universities had been comfortable with that assignment). Like you, I find the constant complaining about student writing–especially in public venues like blogs and Facebook–unproductive.

  3. Dance says:

    I’m not quite buying the non-transferable thing—I can see being baffled by being asked to write like a lawyer, certainly, but I don’t see how that bafflement could override notions like “when you make a claim, you need to present evidence to support it.” I feel as though a lot of the complaints I see focus on things that could be solved with fairly basic editing and attention to pretty fundamental skills about how words and sentences should be put together.

    I’ve read papers where I thought “oh, very nice command of language, but totally not doing what this paper needs to do”, but I don’t complain about those students as “bad writers”, I complain about students who ignored the assignment.

    Perhaps our fault as faculty may be that we make writing seem too idiosyncratic, and don’t emphasize certain common rules enough, so that students fail to realize they do transfer to other classes. But I’m skeptical of the notion that the rule “apostrophes should be used for possessives and contractions” suddenly vanishes when students are asked to write in History rather than English. Maybe the students never actually learned that rule, and just learned by rote and repetition that “Author’s Text” requires a little blob in the right place.

    Now, when I see a complaint “oh this student is such a bad writer”, followed by a list of typos and grammatical errors that Word’s spellcheck would have caught, yeah, I think that prof has totally missed the point about what bad writing is.

  4. Roy Jacobsen says:

    I’m a bit concerned about those students who were told to “write like a lawyer.” IMO, that’s just about the worst thing you can tell them.

    The sad fact is that lawyers don’t NEED to write like lawyers; Plain English is as legally binding as legalese.

  5. Jason says:

    @Roy That’s actually a good point, and reminds me that part of the problem was that students felt impelled to “write like a lawyer,” and stopped trusting what got them there.

    @Dance History and English may be too close. But I’ve *definitely* seen students assert that they didn’t think grammar or style mattered on, say, a lab report, or even research papers in relatively quantitative fields.

    To be honest, though, my real complaint here is with folks from other departments who feel no compunction about running down students’ writing as “something they weren’t taught earlier”–as if they have no responsibility.

    @Chuck and Mike: I don’t mind saying I hate *grading*, though I like reading student work. “Grading” has a bit of an assembly-line feel, especially when you have 100 students in a semester. But this week I’ve also gotten several papers from students just looking for more feedback, and I’m very happy to enagage with them. (*Next* week . . . after grades are due!)