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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