So this afternoon I was sitting in a university-wide meeting, and I ran into a friend from another department, with whom I share a student. Apparently, after I handed back papers this morning in the class in which I have this student, the student fled to talk to my friend and was freaking out about how she’d done. (Note: the paper is only worth 10% of the final grade, and the student was solidly in the middle of the papers, in terms of the grade. In other words, the student is fine. Not in trouble at all, in the grand scheme of things. But my students tend not to see the grand scheme.) At any rate, kudos to my friend for telling the student to come see me, and I ended up meeting with the student for 45 minutes, and it was all good.
But as my friend and I were chatting about this, the conversation then veered to me talking about how appalled I was by many of the papers that were submitted in that class, another colleague from Nursing was sitting next to me, and she said, “This is a class with majors and minors? In English? This actually makes me feel better – that it’s not just my students who don’t seem to be able to write. Are they really not able to write?”
I thought for a moment, and then I responded: “Honestly? They are able to write well. But they don’t always do what they are capable of doing. I think they want to test you to see what you’ll do. I think they want to see how little they can do and still do ok. So my tendency is to give the smack-down early, and then magically the work that I get improves. But yes, that first paper really sucks.”
Lots of people from other departments were listening to me at that point, and they all seemed astonished both that “English majors” submit crappy writing (a) and that I don’t cave and curve everything up (b). And then our committee meeting started, and that was that.
But so I felt like maybe I should write about what I think about the writing that I get from my students in upper-level courses, and about the limits of required writing courses, which, let’s note, I also teach.
It strikes me that people in disciplines not English – and maybe some people even who are *in* English – want to believe that required writing courses – those gen ed writing courses – will teach students everything that they need to know about writing. This, my friends, is not true. For lots of reasons. Even if they have exemplary teachers of writing in those courses (which isn’t always the case, but let’s pretend we’re in a utopia where all writing courses are awesome). And if a person believes that, he or she has two options when he or she gets a stack of shitty papers: 1) blame the English department, which clearly is Not Doing Its Job, or 2) blame the students, who are clearly functional illiterates. But neither of those options is actually reasonable. First of all, just because a student is able to succeed in a class devoted to writing, it doesn’t mean that the student will understand that what he or she has learned there is supposed to be applied elsewhere. Second, and I really do believe this, students are often only as capable as what is demanded of them; put more simply, if they can get away with shitty writing, then they often will only submit shitty writing. ( I believe this second point in part because I submitted shitty writing as a student, even though I was capable of more, because I knew that it would be “good enough.”)
Look, I’ve had students follow me from writing courses to lit courses who have done poorly on the writing in lit courses. In other words, there isn’t even a variable of the instructor there. BUT. They don’t translate what they learned about writing from me to the lit context. It’s not that they are stupid, or that they didn’t meet the expectations for writing in my writing class. It’s that there is a problem of translation. (Note: I’ve had students follow me from lit gen ed courses into upper-level lit courses and do just fine. My point is that comp does not necessarily an all-around-good-writer make.)
So yes, I teach upper-division English majors, and sometimes they still, unaccountably, submit writing that is wordy, awkward, ungrammatical, and BAD. Bad like there aren’t coherent paragraphs. Bad like they don’t appear to recognize the meaning of the “sentences,” if you can call them that.
Part of this is laziness, but that’s not the whole story. Most of the story is usually that you are expecting them to encounter ideas that they don’t know how to handle, ideas that are new and scary and difficult. They might be great writers with things that they are comfortable with, but once you challenge them? The whole thing becomes a hot mess. This doesn’t mean that they are bad writers – it means that they are out of their intellectual depth. If you teach them the ideas, then the writing can catch up. But the writing has to catch up to their thinking – the writing isn’t a stand-alone thing.
Here’s the thing that I’ve learned from teaching writing: I have to teach writing in all of my classes. In fact, this is the primary reason that I resent teaching composition: not that I don’t like to teach writing, but rather that the reality is that I’m teaching writing even when it counts for nothing. In other words, it’s not that I’m not teaching writing if I’m not teaching comp, but rather that all of the teaching of writing that I do is totally ignored and undervalued precisely because it’s not labeled as comp.
But let me stop bitching. My point is this. I got a bunch of papers that I would say were not good enough. And the ones that really weren’t good? That really were terrible? I required revision, and I insisted that they come see me. So that I can teach them how to write. No, that’s not the point of this class, and yes, it’s more work for me. But if I believe in anything, I believe in this – in teaching my students to express themselves in some sort of a coherent fashion. Mainly because I think that this is the general point of an education.
And this last paragraph seemed to be the most astonishing thing, to my colleagues from elsewhere in the university. They said, when I said that I was requiring revision,”but that’s more grading for you!” Yeah, it is. But I have terrified those students to the point that they will submit AWESOME papers. It’s not really extra work when that’s the result. But my colleagues were all, “But how do you know they’ll be awesome?”
How do I know? Honestly, I know because I’ve scared the shit out of them. My students work for me because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. And that is, at least in my experience, good pedagogy. Every student of mine, in this particular class, who followed me from another class – gen ed, intro to the major, upper-level – was in the upper quarter – if not an A-range – on this paper. Students who can rise to my standards rise. And, frankly, I’d be doing those students a disservice if I didn’t challenge them to rise. But I’m also confident that if I didn’t challenge them that they wouldn’t bother even trying.
Students don’t write better for me because I make them do it,though. They write better because they believe that they have to. And yes, there is a difference. And part of that difference lies in that I work really hard to teach them to write, even in classes that aren’t “writing” classes, and I support them in working hard for me.
In sum: if you leave writing instruction to gen ed, you will be disappointed. My students are excellent writers because I teach them writing even when they should already know better. And yes, that makes a difference.