I posted a brief thing about this on my Fb page today, but I want to talk about it more fully, and y’all are due for a “real” post from me, so here we go.
I am teaching “honors” comp for the second time this semester, and so I’m starting to be able to trace some trends about the “issues” that come up that are different from the “issues” of “regular” comp students. And what follows is one of them.
In order to get into “honors” comp, students have to attain a minimum ACT score, so this means that they come in as generally proficient writers. I don’t typically have to work with them on massive problems with grammar and punctuation, and I don’t spend a whole lot of time on defining “the paragraph” or things like that. This is exciting: it means that I actually get to teach about style and the benefits of revision when it comes to “polishing” as opposed to “fixing.” In that regard, teaching my little freshmen to write is actually more of a treat than teaching some of my English majors to write: these students come in with a “toolbox” that is already pretty much full, so it’s not about giving them the tools so much as it is about showing them how to use tools that they already have.
That said, this doesn’t mean that they have nothing to learn about writing, or nothing to learn about the writing process. So a certain frustrating problem has come up with some frequency for me, and I think it might just be the nature of teaching students who have always done pretty well with writing: they feel like they are getting something “wrong” if they need to revise, and they tend (to some extent) to blame me for them getting it “wrong” – they think that I have some secret agenda that I’m not communicating to them if they need to invest themselves in their papers.
(I don’t have some secret agenda: it’s all right there in the assignments that I give them and in the instruction that I give them in class. All peer review and my draft comments do is break down what is all already written in the assignment sheet into its component parts. My assignment sheets are comprehensive, and they have bullet points, y’all. There is no mystery. And part of what I’m teaching them is how to read a freaking assignment sheet and to interpret it in order to respond to it with good results.)
Let me be clear: my frustration isn’t with this subset of students – and it is by no means all of them, though it is a fair percentage – has nothing to do with them being “lazy.” They are not “lazy.” They just interpret having to invest time and energy in their work as a personal failure. Even if that investment ultimately pays off in a “good” grade. (And by “good” I mean a grade in the A-range.)
So, for example, in a conference with a student today, zie expressed frustration because zie had worked for “two hours” on hir draft for peer review, and after going through the peer review process, getting feedback both from hir peers and from me, the student had to “spend another four hours” working on the essay (a 4-6 page rhetorical analysis), a process that zie described as “scrapping the whole thing and starting over.”
Now, here’s the thing: the student didn’t scrap the whole thing and start over. Zie took that first draft, reorganized the ideas that zie had already included, cut out some sentences that didn’t advance the argument and expanded on some points that zie hadn’t fully developed originally. Now, to me, that sounds like a textbook definition of what revision should include, and it sounds like a success story. But the student perceived it as “getting it wrong” on the draft, and as needing to respond to (my) arbitrary demands for the final version. So it’s not that the student didn’t work hard (zie did) nor that the student didn’t produce a very useful “shitty first draft” (zie did – and really, I wouldn’t even call it “shitty”). But the student’s expectations for what “success” is (I will write a draft in two hours and it will be perfect with only minor adjustments to make – a comma here, a fixed typo there) don’t align with the expectations for a final draft of a sophisticated, fully developed essay for college (you need to invest a bunch of time after your initial version to really present your ideas in the most effective way possible).
Now, some observations:
- 6 hours total spent on a 4-6 page paper that ultimately receives a grade in the A-range seems like not very much time to spend, particularly when the students didn’t have any additional outside-of-class reading or writing assignments for the week before the final version was due – and they even had some in-class time to work together in groups on ideas and approaches, guided by a worksheet. In other words: the student, who is taking a course worth three credit hours spent two hours for every hour spent in the classroom. This perfectly aligns with what we tell students they should expect in college (and is actually far below what we often expect of them as they move into upper-level courses, in which they usually have reading in addition to a paper assignment in a given week).
- Some of the problem is the messages that the student received from hir high school AP English teacher about how to write to do well on the AP test. Good advice, it turns out, for doing well on that test. So I spent some time today talking to this student about how test rubrics look for certain things, and so the high school teacher wasn’t “wrong” – in fact, I advise students in similar ways who are preparing for the writing section of the GRE who want to go to graduate school. But just because you are doing good “writing for the test” writing doesn’t mean that you are doing good writing. It means that you are adequately meeting the needs of a particular rubric (one reason why I hate rubrics, as a teacher of writing, actually: sophisticated transitions and complex sentence structures and original and engaging style don’t often neatly correspond to rubrics that are applied universally) which will give you a particular result. Should you be able to adjust your writing to a particular rubric (or audience) for particular reasons? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that you are writing “perfectly” when you do. So part of this is an audience issue.
- This student clearly cares about doing well, and this student clearly wants to do college “right.” That’s awesome. But doing it “right” and doing it “exceptionally well” are not the same thing. “Exceptionally well” takes more than two hours. Also: doing it “exceptionally well” means more than just generally responding to an assignment in a less than original way.
- I myself was this sort of a student at certain times in my academic career, so I totally identify with feeling pissed off that “all my work” wasn’t enough. I get it, really and truly.
But so at any rate, this post isn’t so much a complaint as a question: do you all face similar issues with otherwise “strong” students? How do you communicate to them that having to work and doing the work is a success and not a failure? In other words, is there something that I’m missing here (part of me really thinks this is just a phase and that by the end of the course the student will “get it”) about how to address this frustration (students’ frustration as well as my own?)?
But let me conclude:
I have a student – a STEM major no less! – who is rocking every assignment. Like, perfect responses. This student takes every paper to the writing center, in addition to doing the peer review in class, and in addition to coming to check in with me about questions zie has after all of that during my office hours. And the student’s drafts are pretty much A-range work before all of that. I am a notoriously tough grader: I have given this student A+ grades on the first two assignments. This. Has. Never. Happened. In. The. History. Of. My. Career. Zie is a first-year student. I would read an essay by this student every day for the rest of my life if I could do so. I mean really: zie is a delight – like a special present for me as a teacher. I want to make zie an English major just because I feel like zie would think about all things awesomely and write about them all awesomely. On the other hand, I don’t want zie to be an English major because I want zie to follow hir own path. I am trying very hard not to push zie in a direction that is not hir own.
I also have another student – a [insert specialization here] management major – who is vaguely earnest and inappropriate, but very creative! – who isn’t a super A++ but who is working super hard and who clearly is very creative and excited about hir writing. Zie spends hours and hours on hir papers, and wants to spend even more!
In other words, not all students think that the more work they put in the suckier they are. Some of them like that they are being challenged and pushed and they don’t view being asked to do more work as a negative review.
I give these last examples to be clear: this is NOT a “students suck” post. This is a genuine question: how do I get them to see that when I ask them to revise, when I ask them to do more, it’s because I believe in them? Is that an attainable goal to have for all of my students? Or do some just need time to realize that this is true?