Sunday, April 12, 2009

A crank's lament

Dear students:

Right around now, the last few of you are retrieving your term papers from our virtual classroom. And I imagine that you're reading my irascible comments with sinking hearts. Your pristine margins are littered with scrawls: "wrong word," "unclear," "awkward," "redundant," "superfluous," "SIMPLIFY!" As the pages scroll past, the handwriting becomes increasingly erratic. Exclamation points and underlining appear more frequently. The comments at the end contain almost no encouragement and much disappointment.

It's clear that your papers have been the victim of a cranky, belligerent professor, one whose frustration over unmet standards has gotten the better of her. That professor is me.

Yes, I marked your essays with increasing agitation. Yes, I became angrier, as the page count mounted, at missing commas and run-on sentences and empty phraseology like "the fact that," as if you should have learned from your opening mistakes and ended better than you started. Yes, the exercise of correcting your grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure indeed struck me as a waste of my time, considering that it was aimed at such accomplished students with such a keen interest in ideas, and considering the woeful state of basic composition pedagogy that it revealed.

And I'm here to apologize for my wrathful pen. Because I don't think it's your fault that your papers were dreadful. I think it's mine. And I think it's my profession's.

All semester you've been writing for me. And it's been wonderful. Almost none of the faults of these essays have been in evidence in your previous writing. Responding online to prompts that asked you to reflect on your texts and on ideas related to them, encouraged to free-write without revision and with no attention to the formal structures of the essay, you've been eloquence incarnate. Your ideas have shone through simple, clear language. You've used words appropriately. Your passion and thought process have been crystal clear. I've read you all semester with such joy and interest that your writing has all but disappeared for me. Instead, it's like we've been communicating mind to mind.

Yet faced with a blank word processing document, your name and my name and the course title and the date left-justified at the top, you've turned into incompetents. Did you suddenly lose your ability to write?

No, of course not. What happened was that the form of the academic essay snapped handcuffs on you. Instead of being taught to think in high school, you were taught to "write." That meant introductions and five point outlines and transitions and formal, useless phrases intended to make your sentences more varied and complex.

What you do every week for me in those journals, you don't think of as writing. That's why it's so good, so natural, so transparent a window into your minds. As soon as we give you a writing assignment, though, the prison door snaps shut. Writing becomes labor. Thoughts struggle to escape the format, and fail. Language is tortured beyond recognition. Meaning dies, suffocated by the airless vacuum of the academic essay.

You need to learn to produce these papers. Most of you are going on to graduate school; you'll be cranking them out for years to come. But we've gone at it completely backwards. We've made writing into essay production. What you do so well in your tweets, on your blogs, on Facebook, on our online community, even in the weekly journals you send me, we have related not at all to what we're asking you to do come term paper time. We've squandered your strength as writers by not teaching you to harness it for that arcane, convention-bound, largely irrelevant form called the academic essay. Instead of showing you how well you write in the genres that come naturally to you, and then gently and gradually placing our unnatural mold around you so that you can fill it with meaning, we demand that you fill the essay bucket over and over again before you've even found your voice. Is it any wonder that you have become adept at producing padded, repetitive, completely unnatural drivel, just to get the slop up to the rim?

And so, beloved students, to atone for my hostile remarks on your papers, I'll make you a promise. With your help, I'll stop making the production of academic essays into the culmination of each succeeding semester. Course by course, we'll strike a blow against the outdated hegemony of this ivory-tower-bound genre. Maybe then, we can start over and learn how to produce them when needed, beyond our current myopia about the aesthetic superiority and universal relevence of the form.

Yours for progress and clarity,



scotteb said...

Interesting essay. And yet I can't help but think the academic essay format is necessary to get people to write well enough to post clear, well-written thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Otherwise you end up with the "omg, ur so kewl" dreck that shows up in most of these media. Bit of a Catch-22, but you're right, there's got to be a better way.

Vadim said...

I had kind of a culture shock my first few college English classes; I'd been used to churning out big, macro statements and working from there. It took me about half a semester to learn to do close reading and structure my arguments adequately, but then I spent a lot of time learning, for example, not to use contractions, because they are "not academic." And that is the kind of nonsense that leads to students spinning their wheels, writing ungrammatical nonsense in an attempt to sound "academic" and "professional." It's no joke.

Greg said...

Having lost plenty of these kinds of battles myself, try to get your students (and everyone!) to read "Writing With Style" by John Trimble. I sure wish I'd read it when I was in college.

W.E.B. Adamant said...

Speaking as a student who survived your paper grading scarred but better for it, I can say that I wouldn't write as well as I do now (forget the arguable premise of that statement) without the input you and Jane gave me on my papers. It was a shock to realize that the writing that got me an Advanced on the literacy exams was not enough to get me an outright A in college. And that shock was *good.*

I used this argument about affirmative action the other day, but it fixing it at the higher ed level is like building supports on the top floor of a tumbling skyscraper. The problem is the foundation, and you and I have no immediate power over that, and even starting tomorrow wouldn't reap rewards for another generation.

Then again, you are dealing with people who are writing well when not forced to produce arcane papers about arcane subjects in arcane language, so it's quite possible to help them. It's certainly not too late to do so, anyway.

Optimism, I say!

Stephanie said...

Do these students take our composition courses? If they don't, they don't get our woeful basic composition pedagogy.

Donna B. said...

Nope, either they've clepped out (easly 90% of them) or they're using my course to substitute for it. It's the high school pedagogy I'm critiquing, and my own in so far as I take my cues from that trajectory.

Jenn said...

You're absolutely right. Students have things to say, they just struggle to put it into the "correct" format. I'm actually trying to address some of those problems now, with my thesis...I think my PhD will continue to look at the problems of student writing. You have made a difference for many inexperienced writers, and you will continue to make that difference. Keep on, sister. :)

doafy said...

When you say "I'll stop making the production of academic essays into the culmination of each succeeding semester," do you mean you'll stop assigning academic essays? You've already acknowledged that your students need to know how to write these papers (and write them well) for graduate school, so if you stop assigning them, don't you just postpone their judgment until the next assignment from the next teacher? How do you propose to put the "unnatural mold" around their ideas without using the mold?

In defense of high school teachers, I do not know anyone in my department who encourages convoluted sentences and empty phrases. Somewhere, our students pick up the idea that this is what makes them sound "smart." This is especially bad in my honors classes, where I frequently have to tell my students to stop trying to impress me with their language. If their ideas are good and their language clear, I'll be impressed enough. I have to remind them that the purpose of an essay is to get their ideas across clearly.

I read once that "complexity for the sake of complexity is bad writing," and I'm frequently explaining that to my sophomores.

(Granted, in my non-honors classes I'm battling in the other direction, against rampant texttalk and phrases like "back in the day." But that's another story and a different group of students.)

Donna B. said...

No, I don't mean I'll stop assigning them. But in my upper division classes I've noticed that already I've stopped treating them as the apotheosis of the semester's work. I tend to assign them as collaborative projects (making everybody responsible for rooting out the redundancies and inanities -- in effect, building peer review into the writing itself). So the individual production of a properly formatted paper is de-emphasized in most of my classes ... except for the freshman classes, where I don't have control because they are team-taught.

Jenn said...

The problem is that freshman are being asked to write in a genre that they have yet to be properly initiated into--we tend to expect students to acquire a style and voice that they had no proper training in. Even if they take freshman composition, there's no guarantee that they'll be able to write appropriately in the academic setting--researchers have found that knowledge transfer doesn't really happen from course to course.

The university system essentially asks students to acquire knowledge without directly teaching them what they need to know, then wonders why students fail and blame high schools. There is a disconnect between high school writing and college writing, and it is a gap that needs to be addressed. High schools don't know what to teach to make sure their students succeed as university students, and universities don't equip students to succeed (easily or at first, anyway) where writing is concerned. It's a major flaw to the university system and one that needs to be addressed. If even honors students struggle to master the form of academic writing we expect them to magically know, what about the majority of other students?

Anonymous said...

You should be in my Contemporary Composition class right now. We've been discussing this kind of stuff all semester: how to get students to do what they do in their free-writing for formal papers, why it's difficult for them to do as well in more formal rhetorical/composition settings, etc. I'm no expert on this stuff, but here's what I've gathered from our discussions on these topics:

Allow them to (well...*make* them) do drafts of these essays. Experienced writers, which they will ideally be after their four years in college, use their first drafts to flesh out ideas. Once they have the first draft complete (and sometimes even during the composition of the first draft) they begin to really figure out what it is they want to say. So, instead of having them turn in just one draft of this essay, allow them to do it at least twice. If you're already doing that, just be sure to keep in mind that even experienced writers need at least one draft to flesh out their ideas.

The problem, however, is that students want to turn in that first draft and call it complete. A lot of the younger students don't really grasp the idea of "revision." They think it's just a matter of correcting grammar instead of revising ideas. That's where you come in.

Establish early on that they need to think of revision as more than just revising grammar. It's about getting a grasp on the ideas and fleshing out the arguments. Once the ideas and arguments are solid, then they can worry about grammar. After all, what's the point in revising for grammar if you're just going to end up cutting sentences and paragraphs out of the essay?

So, the students need to get past their traditional views on writing essays. Throughout school, they've probably been handed back papers with lots of red ink and comments about grammar plastered all over them. This means they think that grammar the teacher's main concern. That's probably why they find it more difficult to write formal essays -- they just want the paper to sound and look right. Instead, they just need to focus on their ideas. Then they can go back and worry about making the paper grammatically correct, etc.

I'm sure this is probably stuff you already know, but I wanted to try to help with your frustration, if I could.

Anonymous said...

Cranky -- good. Writing honestly is an emotional process. I suspect you are just experiencing the pain and frustration of the writer's disconnect -- over and over and over. Are you posting from a quiet, white room? I think we need to restructure our approach to public education. Of course, I thought we needed an overhaul over 20 years ago when I taught English for a few years. Like you, I was intriqued by my students' insights and hunger for exploring ideas. They thrived with my admittedly unorthodox approaches, ironically scoring outrageously high on standardized tests. Those scores made it difficult to fire me, but my teaching made others uncomfortable. As my students observed, I was called into the principal's office more than any student they knew. You are strong. Hang in there. We all need you doing what you do.

Charlie said...

If you could actually take some steps toward lifting the great yoke of the academic essay off students' necks as the end-all be-all of the course, I would be delighted. I know I'm just as guilty of the padding and frivolous sentences in my academic essays and usually sat staring at a blank monitor for hours before starting.

I favored Honors courses that were chiefly in-class discussion rather than extensive writings at home. Something like a live forum or Twitter discussion; (with a significantly higher character limit) these produced discussion that was clear, concise, and productive. (Or maybe, as the art major, I just had to like what was different.)

Perhaps it was a consequence of standardized testing throughout my primary education, because I am guilty of the same crime. I can remember, quite clearly, having the "correct" format for "persuasive" (that were usually anything but) essays pressed upon me and being instructed that any deviation was WRONG. That fear of giving wrong answers, one I think most students come into college with (yes, even Honors College students), can be hard to shake.
(This is no fault of your own, or really most any college professor I had the joy of studying under. I'm sure you understand that.)

The best of luck in any progress you can make on this, and thank you on behalf of all students as petrified by academic essays as I was.

Stephanie said...

Alli and Jenn made some wonderful comments--a huge problem with the disconnect between high school and college is that high school teachers and college teachers often serve completely different masters (mostly, standardized tests), so their pedagogy is necesasrily completely different. Until we can change that and allow advanced high school students the freedom to peruse the type of writing that is done in college, the disconnect will remain. That's why students are really completely rediscovering themselves as writers in college--it's a while new world.

Danny said...

I applaud your willingness to "strike a blow against the outdated hegemony" of the formal essay, but I must say, as a former student of yours and as one who's had his margins filled by your "wrathful pen" on more than one occasion, I think your rigorous critiques serve a larger purpose than merely enforcing a particular set of conventions: They actually help students think clearer, sharper, I daresay better. The redundant, awkward, convoluted, superfluous phrases you slice and dice with your red pen are not just grammatical or syntactical or conventional errors; more often than not, they're instances of thought/expression still in a nascent, underdeveloped state, and your diligent criticism helps them grow. For that reason, I will forever be grateful for your wrathful pen and hope that those who follow in my footsteps can swallow their pride and do the same.

Sometimes it's okay to be biting. Sometimes developing minds need a wake-up call. And sometimes, style counts.

God bless America.