The first time I recall being viewed as “good at writing” was in high school when I submitted a parody of my friends and teachers for a short story assignment; this was probably my junior year of high school during Mr. Harrill’s American literature class, and I am quite certain that I would be mortified by the story if I could read it now.

A couple years later, however, my “writer epiphany” came the spring of my first year of college. I very clearly mark the beginning of my life as a writer with a poem I wrote from my dorm room, inspired by being introduced to e.e. cummings in my speech course with Mr. Brannon.

To be blunt, I likely didn’t really write anything of consequence until my mid-30s—specifically my doctoral dissertation. And then, my life as a published academic really didn’t occur until I was in my early 40s (my 20s and 30s had a smattering of published poems, stories, and scholarship).

These realizations about writing quality over decades of formal schooling and so-called serious writing help inform my work as a teacher of writing. My undergraduates are unlikely to write anything of real consequence while in college so I see my job as helping them develop behaviors the support the possibility of them writing something of consequence if and when that becomes something they want or need to do (graduate school or in the “real world”).

As I have continued to think about my spring courses and the need for students to unlearn to write, I am convinced more than ever that students struggle to write well in formal schooling because of formal schooling.

A high school teacher of English and I talked through my experiences with three different courses of students recently submitting cited essays. Students often seem so bound to their past experiences that they do not or cannot follow basic formatting guidelines even with the detailed models I provide.

The high school teacher eventually identified a key problem I face teaching my students to write at the college level. Since my university is selective, I teach mostly highly successful students. Whether or not we want to call them smart, these students are extremely good at doing a certain kind of schooling in which student behaviors are rewarded.

Students are determined to show that they are working hard, the high school teacher concluded, but they do not recognize the need for working carefully. I added that this was exactly it, and that at the college level, thinking and working carefully and even slowly are qualities valued in scholarship.

Another challenge for students and teaching those students is the essential concept of being a scholar as that is layered onto being a writer. One example of this problem occurred in my first-year writing seminar.

A student submitted a cited essay on a topic outside of my field; I found the content to be problematic, but since I am not a scholar of the area, I simply alerted the student of my concern, noting that if he wrote the same piece in an upper-level course in that discipline, a professor would likely challenge the content in ways I could not (since I am primarily focusing on other aspects of writing, which I will detail below).

The student immediately responded, justifying his topic by his own lived experiences. I, of course, carefully explained that having a lived experience matters, but that is not how one becomes a scholar. Expertise is built from the sort of careful consideration of a topic that happens over time spent studying.

Regretfully, for students, that process of being a scholar is too often reduced to the artificial “research paper,” an experience that trivializes being scholarly and misleads students that working hard is all that matters.

This entire problem is a subset of the problem of grading as well. I do not grade but have minimum expectations; I also will not provide students feedback on assignments until they meet basic requirements (from Word document formatting to APA citation formatting).

Again, as noted above, students are working in the context of direct instruction in class that is grounded in the student resources, checklists, and detailed samples I provide.

None the less, several students will submit work without any citations in their essay, work with only 2 or 3 of the 10 sources on the references page cited in the essay, work clearly cited in MLA format, and other head-scratching submissions that seem completely unrelated to the assignment or the samples provided.

Here, then, are what I am holding my students accountable for when teaching writing at the college level, keeping in mind that they are unlikely to confront anything not already covered well by many seasoned scholars and that they (as with my own experiences) probably will not submit anything of consequence as an undergrad:

  • Learning how to use Word (or any word processor) as a tool. I am a stickler for using page breaks and properly formatting hanging indents (again, not that these are inherently important, but they are common ways in which Word can be used to help make formatting work for a writer). I am also adamant about reminding students not to submit work with different fonts (such as one font in the header and another for the essay) or manipulating spacing or font sizes (to distort the length of an essay). While I recognize that formatting is essentially superficial, this focus is about teaching students that being careful, meticulous, and detail oriented are likely to be well regarded at the college level—while their usual “working hard” approach can fail them if their submitted appears careless, sloppy, and incomplete (a draft).
  • Coming to recognize citation as a basic expectation of scholarly writing and thinking, while moving away from “memorizing” citation style guides and moving toward carefully using style guides as references while they work. I hold students to some elements of using APA (the citation of my field of education) in the same way I do simple document formatting (above); in other words, I will not give feedback on an assignment until some of the mechanics are demonstrated (double-spacing, hanging indents and alphabetized references, in-text parenthetical citations, etc.).
  • Rethinking their work as students-as-scholars/writers by shifting how they integrate sources in their original writing. One of the worst habits students bring to college in terms of citation is the hard-work approach to using their sources—stacking up 5-10 sources (in high school, that was books pulled from the library shelves) and walking through them one at a time, doing very little original work and taking almost no care to organize the content of the essays. Here is one the greatest challenges, I find, when I encourage students to stop writing about their sources—”Johnson and Kale (2018) conducted a study and found that…”—and begin to write about their topic in complex and compelling ways—”Dress codes remain sexist and racist (Cole, 2019; Hall, 2016; Johnson & Kale, 2018; Paul, 2020).”

For the first two bullet points above, I tend to hold firm to not accepting work until students meet the requirements (this can be painful for them and me), and for the third bullet, I focus on this as I comment and prompt them to address in their rewrite(s).

A final point that I must emphasize is that using high-quality sources well and fully is a foundational aspect of content in student writing. I note this since students often follow up when I return their essays and my feedback with “What about my content?”

I explain that it is very hard to take an essay seriously when citations are incorrect, incomplete, or incorporated in careless ways (working through one source at a time). In other words, for students as young scholars, citation is an essential way for them to establish and develop their credibility.

Working hard is performing as a student; working carefully is performing as a scholar.

I am under no delusion as a teacher of writing at the undergraduate level that I am producing writers; therefore, I want my writing expectations and experiences to contribute to their journey as careful thinkers—a few of whom may choose the life of an academic, a scholar, or a writer.