From Thesis to Focus: In Pursuit of Coherence

Having spent nearly four decades teaching high school and college students to write, I have also during that time talked with and listened to many colleagues also either teaching writing or assigning writing in their courses.

As teachers are prone to do, these teachers often complain about their students; I am apt to argue that teachers of writing are even more prone to complaining because teaching writing is labor-intensive work that often fails to produce short-term evidence that the teaching has been effective.

If we don’t complain, well, there simply may not be enough wine to buoy us through the weekends and stacks upon stacks of essays.

While I have a great deal of compassion and empathy for all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, I often shudder at the usual complaints about “students today”—complaints that often are grounded in deficit views of students and misguided perceptions of what teaching writing means, much less what sorts of writing outcomes we should be expecting of teens and young adults.

Howe Professor and Director of Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Elizabeth Wardle offers four important challenges to the most common complaints about students as writers:

First, students are what they have always been: learners. There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing….

Second, to improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut….

The third point: All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general….

Which brings me to a final point: Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

These are powerful broad challenges to some of the most common complaints I hear. Therefore, I want to focus here on her third point by addressing a persistent refrain from teachers of writing—students can’t (or don’t) write effective thesis statements.

While many K-12 and higher education teacher and professors uncritically view the thesis statement as an essential aspect of what Wardle refutes (“singular ‘good’ writing in general”), I do not teach students to write thesis sentences (within a broader effort to have them move beyond the introduction/body/conclusion template of the essay), but instead, we seek writing that develops a focus over the opening paragraphs (usually about 2-5 paragraphs) and an essay that has coherence.

This approach is grounded in helping students develop essay awareness along with a broader awareness of the many conventions of essays across academic disciplines as well as writing beyond the academy.

What guides this practice is, first, my experiences as a writer, and then important challenges to the negative consequences of thesis-driven writing offered by Duxbury and Ballinger.

But I also have students move away from the thesis sentence and toward focus and coherence because I witness in every course that most students have been misguided by the tyranny of the thesis sentence. Students write badly trying to accomplish the very thing many teachers complain they cannot do.

Most students in K-12 writing experiences have been required to submit an introduction and thesis before they can draft an essay. This practice ignores the power of discovery drafting but it also suggests that very young writers must always write from the perspective of making direct and fixed claims, to assume a stance of authority they simply do not (and cannot) have.

Conversely, especially for young writers still developing their awareness of writing craft, their understanding of conventions, and their content knowledge, writing that raises questions or interrogates ideas is far more compelling and effective than students making grand pronouncements beyond the scope of their authority.

And nearly all writers come to understand their focus while drafting because the best drafting is a form of thinking.

As a teacher of writing, I more often than not while responding to early drafts point to a sentence or two late in the essay and respond, “This is your opening,” because the student has wandered into a strong essay focus.

Focus and coherence, while both are complex concepts, prove to be better guiding principles than thesis sentences as well as stilted introductions and conclusions (the template approach found in the five-paragraph essay and its cousins).

Warner and many others note, however, that template writing (the five-paragraph essay) is both very bad writing and really lazy thinking. Few topics worthy of discussion, especially in formal education, can be neatly reduced to three points.

In the 1990 edition of Style, Joseph Williams dedicates two chapters to coherence because, as he explains:

All of us have stopped in the middle of a memo, an article, or a book realizing that while we may have understood its words and sentences, we don’t quite know what they should all add up to. …[W]e will offer some principles that will help you diagnose that kind of writing and then revise it. …No one or two of [the principles] is sufficient to make a reader feel a passage is coherent. They are a set of principles that writers have to orchestrate toward that common end.

Williams speaks here to the third point Wardle is making—that writers achieve “good writing” in many different ways to fulfill many different purposes.

As teachers of writing, we are left with helping students “orchestrate” the many and varied conventions, forms, and purposes that they face. But templates cannot and do not serve those needs.

Like the five-paragraph template, the thesis statement is a pale and flawed way for writers of any age to create and achieve focus and coherence.

Moving away from thesis sentences and toward writing that establishes focus and coherence can best be achieved by inviting students to draft as an act of discovery and allowing students to interrogate ideas instead of seeking ways to make fixed claims that they then must support.

All of this must be supported by helping students understand achieving coherence conceptually (principles) and then connecting those principles to craft and strategies that students mine from mentor texts and then apply (through experimentation) in their own original writing expressing their own original (and evolving) thinking.

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Teaching First-Year Students Includes More than Disciplinary Content, Skills

I have two vivid memories of my father—one when I was an older child, the other when I was a teen.

Walking down Main Street of my hometown, my father and I stopped to talk to an adult, and when I didn’t respond with the obligatory “yes, sir,” my father slapped me hard across the face.

Years later, my father was playing in a pick-up basketball game on our home court with my teenaged friends and me. During the game, I crossed the respect line with him and he turned to once again hit me hard across the face—in front of all my friends.

I was raised that children were to be seen and not heard, and all child interaction with adults had to include “sir” and “ma’am.”

Eventually as I grew into roles of authority—teacher, coach, and parent—I took on a much different lesson than my father had intended; I am extremely informal in my clothing and speech, and I avoid formal situations like the plague (because they literally make me feel ill, triggering my anxiety).

Especially as a teacher and coach, I have always worked very hard to treat children and young people with full human dignity and respect; that is something I always wanted as a young person, and those adults who showed me that respect remain important in my life.

In short, while I think all people regardless of age should treat each other with something like respect (for our collective humanity, but not roles such as authority), I also believe that anyone in a position of authority should earn the sort of trust that comes with that authority.

I don’t want students to respect me as their teacher simply because of my status, but because I have the qualities that position represents, characteristics that they in fact respect.

As the academic year is beginning again for many of us in all levels of education, these thoughts were triggered by a Twitter thread and a powerful piece on inclusive teaching.

The thread began:

And some of the replies include:

And then I added:

This exchange, I think, fits well with Sathy and Hogan’s framing of inclusive teaching:

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Since I currently teach two first-year writing seminars and typically have several first-year students in my other courses—and I have been working directly in several committees on diversity and inclusion at my university—I see a strong connection between every professor’s role in teaching beyond what the academic obligations are in each course and the discussion of students emailing professors.

This is especially true for helping students transition from high school into higher education.

My university is a selective liberal arts college with a relatively homogenous student body, often white and relatively affluent.

Although I came from a working-class background, my students tend to function in ways that would make my father proud; they are quite deferent and formal with professors.

Unlike my own upbringing, their ways of navigating adults and people in authority have more to do with spoken and unspoken rules about social capital; none the less, they tend to do the face-to-face “sir” and “ma’am” routines flawlessly.

However, these students often have limited experiences interacting with teachers through email so the concerns raised in the Twitter thread are elements of my teaching I have had to develop once I moved from teaching high school English into higher education.

Here I want to emphasize that something seemingly as superficial as teaching students how to email professors can and should be a central lesson in fostering student awareness about diversity and inclusion.

As I noted in my Twitter response, I have been properly checked in the past about my own tendency to be informal. For women, people of color, and internationals, academia often remains a constant reminder that anyone not white and male exists in marginalized spaces.

Women faculty report often that students and others seeing them in their department spaces assume these women professors to be secretarial staff; people of color have reported equally erasing experiences with similar interactions.

The micro-aggressions of sexism and racism accumulate and overwhelm over time; these experiences do not envelope the profession and lives of white males, who receive immediate deference and assumptions of “Dr.” and “professor.”

The casual email to an early-career women professor sits in these moment-by-moment micro-aggressions while white men of academia can foster low-key and informal relationships both face-to-face and through email with their students; but the latter is one more example of the advantages of privilege.

Yes, I will talk to my first-year (and all) students about emailing their professors. I will couch that in discussing, for example, that student evaluations of teaching (a process first-year students also have little or no experience with) have been shown to perpetuate sexist and racist attitudes by students and then to further entrench sexism and racism (as well as xenophobia) in the academy through tenure and promotion processes.

We will address as well respectability politics and how to navigate that against the norms of student/professor interactions.

Class session will also include exploring “Ms.” versus “Miss/Mrs.” and the rise of gender neutral, singular uses of “they” and people’s pronoun preferences.

My broad goals as a professor in all of my courses attempt to meet Sathy and Hogan’s charge that our teaching is about more than disciplinary content and skills, and that our teaching must be for all students, not simply those who already match our biases and assumptions.

For me, then, I seek to raise my students’ awareness, as opposed to seeking ways for them to acquire a set of skills that I mandate for them.

I want my students to recognize that they are always political beings, interacting with and negotiating a world driven by power dynamics (many of which are historically and inherently inequitable).

Women, people of color, and internationals—whether students or faculty—cannot take vacations from who they are and how that status fits into a world normalized as white and male.

Those of us white and male, unless we make efforts to do otherwise, can function as if our privileges do not exist; they can be invisible to us.

I have deep and personal reasons for wanting my students to interact with me in informal ways that include all of us treating everyone with dignity and kindness. I still shudder a bit at “sir” and even “Dr. Thomas.”

Ultimately, I am not asking my students to adopt some mandate or even to take on a veneer with their professors. I am introducing my students to greater awareness about how all humans interact and how those interactions conform to (or resist) conventional assumptions—norms that are likely to be inequitable, likely to perpetuate sexism, racism, and xenophobia unless everyone becomes aware and actively resists those norms.

All of this, I think, speaks to the first “common question” about (resistance to) inclusive teaching answered by Sathy and Hogan:

I don’t teach about diversity. What does diversity have to do with my course, and why should I care? 

Some instructors make the mistake of equating inclusive teaching with introducing current events or “diversity issues” into, say, a math course. Of course you should offer diverse content, texts, guest speakers, and so on, where they’re relevant, and there’s been plenty of talk about that in academe. But when we talk about teaching inclusively, we choose to focus on the teaching methods that apply to all courses.

In short, all students and their teachers are always navigating political spaces in the formal classroom, and all teachers at every level are obligated to teach inclusively because of that reality.

The first-year student often walks, speaks, and writes through their lives thoughtlessly. My role as their professor is to give them the opportunity to pause, step back, and begin again with purpose and awareness—as a human who wants and deserves their humanity dignity and as a human seeking to live their lives in ways that honor that in everyone else.

Keeping the Why of Writing Instruction in Mind

While many, including myself, have focused on Jennie Young’s provocative argument that “that we stop teaching [academic citation] entirely” in first-year writing, Young builds to an important and broader point by the end: “Writing instruction is a messy business, and there are few simple fixes for any aspect of it.”

I certainly agree there are no simple fixes, but here I want to consider a foundational need if we are in fact concerned about writing instruction—the “why.”

Writing in 1946, Lou LaBrant asserted, “There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach.”

Here, I think, LaBrant is calling for any teacher of writing to understand both the “what” and the “why” before coming to terms with the “how” of teaching writing.

At the K-12 and higher education levels, I suspect there are far more teachers assigning writing than teaching writing, and far more teachers grading writing than giving substantive feedback on writing.

I also would anticipate that too few teachers have investigated the “what” and “why”—in part because they are teaching in a curriculum that is absent a cohesive writing program, some guiding principles for why any teacher is assigning or teaching writing to students.

In a brief exchange with Young, she noted two points from a post of mine grounded in her citation argument. First, Young paraphrases a question, “Is first year writing a service course or a discipline for its own sake?” and from my post, “First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.”

Both of these, I propose, are inherent problems when writing instruction is not grounded in a writing program with clear purposes and goals that are shared by the faculty and the students.

Let me stress now that I am not suggesting there is a singular set of purposes and goals that all writing instruction and programs should adhere to; I am arguing that writing instruction must be grounded in some programatic purposes and goals that are communal (not top-down mandates such as meeting states standards or university mission statements or initiatives) and related to the larger educational purposes and goals of that school.

However, writing instruction in any one course can be greatly improved if—along with insuring that the teaching and learning conditions are conducive to writing instruction—that course and instructor have a clear set of achievable goals. In other words, writing instruction is best when each course has less to accomplish and is also working within a series of courses and a writing program that have overarching guidelines.

A sophomore level high school English class and first-year writing, for example, often labor under the same problems—hostile teaching and learning conditions, an unachievable amount of expected learning outcomes (some of which include writing, but other non-writing expectations crowd the teacher’s and students’ time for learning writing), and a lack of program cohesion or buy-in by teachers and students.

To be blunt, there is little any of us can do about writing instruction being messy and complicated, but one way to help those realities not unnecessarily impede good instruction and robust learning is to be aware as a teacher of the “why” and “what” before designing the “how.”

And for students, less will be more when any writing-intensive course or individual writing assignment in a course is grounded in clear purposes and achievable outcomes.

To return to Young’s specific concern, do all first-year students need intensive academic citation instruction—and more pointedly, is it reasonable to expect all or most of them to understand and apply academic citation well before they have determined their major, the discipline that will dictate what citation stylesheet and writing conventions matter?

When I was briefly directing my university’s first-year seminar program, I argued (without as much success as I intended) that first-year writing needs to be transitional (from high school to college) and foundational (for the needs and expectations of whatever major any student may choose in college, and eventual career).

And as I have repeated often, I dissuaded anyone from thinking first-year writing (or any writing-intensive course) could be an inoculation, somehow “fixing” students for whatever future teachers or courses expected of them.

Decades of teaching and writing and also writing myself have proven to me, humbled me, to the reality that both teaching writing and writing are journeys, often without any ultimate finish line. And I must stress, as Young did, that the messy and not simple are the realities we as teachers and our students must mostly accept.

For writing instruction to work, schools and universities must first design a shared vision for a writing program, and then develop a series of courses that work together to meet the needs of that program in the service of students. With that framework, teachers must be allowed and encouraged to address the “why” and “what” of the courses they are charged to teach.

With their students in mind, next, teachers can begin to fashion the “how” of writing instruction.

Without this purposeful and communal approach, we are likely left with writing being assigned and graded—and writing itself being as poorly served as the students laboring under those assignments and grades.

See Also

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to writeEnglish Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

The Weaponization of Academic Citation, Jennie Young

First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

The Right Remains Wrong about Teaching, Learning, and Critical Thinking

Everything about Williamson M. Evers is politically conservative, right-wing. Evers is a research fellow for the conservative Hoover Institution, explicitly dedicated to market economics and antagonistic to “government intrusion into the lives of individuals” (a libertarian strain of conservatism in the U.S.).

Evers has also been an appointee in a number of Republican state and federal administrations, often connected with education despite his academic background being entirely in the field of political science.

So let’s explore for a moment the great irony in Evers’ opinion/commentary piece for the Wall Street JournalCalifornia Wants to Teach Your Kids That Capitalism Is Racist. Two elements of this screed are worth highlighting, in fact.

Over the course of about 770 inflammatory words that repeatedly misrepresent concepts and terminology in order to rush to his central arguments, Evers builds to these sweeping conclusions: “The curriculum is entirely wrongheaded when it comes to critical thinking” and “Teaching objective history clearly isn’t the goal.”

These claims are nested in the larger argument that the California curriculum Evers is criticizing is somehow a veiled left-wing agenda (while Evers carefully avoids making a case about the possibility of “objective” teaching and learning and is entirely uncritical himself in terms of his own conservative agenda).

Ultimately, Evers is resisting, ironically, a critical examination of capitalism and endorsing the free market ideology of his think tank and political party as if those are what counts as “objective.”

The ideological spectrum of the right in the U.S. (which is by far the dominant ideology, especially when compared to Europe) is conservative in the sense of tradition—meaning that an institution such as public education would be dedicated to transmitting a fixed set of knowledge (this, in fact, is what Evers frames as “objective” even though this approach to teaching and learning is also biased since some agent in power must decide what knowledge counts and what knowledge doesn’t).

Public education in the U.S. has always been mostly conservative and used primarily to perpetuate traditional values associated with the country’s foundational ideals; as such, public education has mostly avoided critical thinking.

And therein lies the great irony of Evers opinion piece.

Critical education and critical thinking do come out of a leftist position, broadly a Marxist tradition. As an academic or scholarly lens, however, “left” in this context is far less about narrow partisan politics and more about how anyone navigates knowledge and human behavior.

For example, a traditional (thus conservative) approach to the Founding Fathers would offer students the ideals and actions taken by the men typically framed as founders in order to establish what makes the United States a free country. In many ways, this traditional approach to teaching is not factually incorrect, but it is misleading by omission.

If we pull back from this narrow history lesson, we must also acknowledge that the teaching of history in U.S. public schools is almost exclusively the promoting of positive and thus uncritical views of U.S. policies, wars, and political leaders.

In other words, the biased and incomplete approach to history that Evers idealizes as “objective” has not only dominated the teaching and learning of history in U.S. public education for more than a century, it remains the norm of how most history courses are taught—except in outlier situations where teachers inject critical history such as Howard Zinn’s history-as-activism or a marginally popular text, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen.

While Evers and many on the right enjoy demonizing government and government institutions as leftist, the reality is that all formal organizations are inherently conservative in that for any cohesive body to exist, it must maintain its structure. To be critical is to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.

This is the essential partisan political tension between conservative (keeping things as they are) and progressive (seeking change, idealistically for the better).

Many on the right struggle with genuine criticism because to be critical is viewed as always negative (as in “to criticize) and criticism of X is almost always assumed to be an endorsement of Y.

Here is the great flaw of thinking perpetuated by partisan politics in the U.S., a system that is almost entirely divorced of an ideological spectrum and any real range of choice. Republican and Democrats in the U.S. are mostly well right of center ideologically and barely indistinguishable from each other beyond party affiliation.

Academic settings in the U.S.—at both the K-12 and high education levels—are rarely about endorsing either Republicans and Democrats (because the traditional nature of teaching and learning is not critical and thus is endorsing the system that perpetuates both). And any left-leaning elements in formal education, by being critical, are pulling back from that simplistic binary and from the incomplete knowledge base taught in traditional curriculum in order to ask critical questions.

Thomas Jefferson is not simply a great thinker and leader, but a man deeply stained by slavery during the inception of the country. Slavery as well is not simply a scar on the history of the nation, but a key element in how capitalism gained momentum and so-called economic progress flourished in the early years of the country.

And thus, the lazy and misguided approach to critical thinking on the right would be having students investigate which car is the better choice, a Honda Civic or a Toyota Camry.

Authentic critical thinking would be having students investigate who benefits from the U.S. being so invested in car ownership while considering the option of not owning a car at all (seeking better public transportation, for example).

Evers as a conservative ideologue, then, is incapable of recognizing that he is endorsing a curriculum that is biased propaganda (pro-capitalism) and a way of teaching that lacks critical thinking.

In fact, Evers is the one wrongheaded about critical thinking: “Critical thinking is described not as reasoning through logic and consideration of evidence but rather a vague deconstruction of power relationships so that one can ‘speak out on social issues.'”

Critical education and critical thinking in that tradition are entirely about equipping students to interrogate knowledge, to ask “In whose interest is this?” and “Who is in power and why?”

The right in the U.S. is the power class, and Evers is among that power elite.

Those of us on the left, never among the power elites, are not threatened by critical thinking that seeks to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.

Those of us who are critically progressive are capable of seeing that the U.S. historically and currently is good for some while failing many. To be critical and progressive, then, is to seek better for all, not just maintaining the good for some.

As a critical educator and scholar, I have always wondered about the failed logic on the right. If the traditional values the right so eagerly endorses and protects are in fact as wonderful as they claim, why can they not stand against criticism and interrogation?

The authoritarian tendencies of the right suggest a fear of individual thinking and autonomy; the right is deeply invested in power, but the left remains deeply skeptical of all power and authority.

Formal education dedicated to human liberation must be grounded in critical thinking, the ways of calling all knowledge into question and seeking the full story—not simply the aspects of the story endorsed by the ruling elites.

The final irony is that commentaries such as Evers is unintended proof of the ultimate dangers of incomplete knowledge and a failure to think critically.

See Also

CQ Researcher: Does Common Core help students learn critical thinking? No.

More on Critical Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and the Other: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom”

Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

Teacher Preparation and the Kafkan Nightmare of Accreditation

Over three-plus decades of teaching, I have found that students are far less likely to laugh while reading Franz Kafka than, say, while reading Kurt Vonnegut. But Kafka and Vonnegut are essentially satirists, though both traffic mainly in dark humor.

Black-and-white photograph of Kafka as a young man with dark hair in a formal suit

Franz Kafka 1923 (public domain)

The Metamorphosis is the work most people associate with Kafka, but it isn’t readily recognized, I have found, that the work is filled with slapstick humor—the scene when Gregor is revealed as a bug to his family—while also making a damning commentary on the consequences of the bureaucratic life.

You see, Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis into a bug is merely a physical manifestation of his life as a salesman, which, Kafka illustrates, is nothing more than a bug’s life.

This, of course, was Kafka’s impression of early twentieth century Prussia as well as the corrosive nature of materialism. As I enter my eighteenth year as as a teacher educator, after eighteen years as a public school English teacher, I can attest that Kafka has pretty much nailed my career on the head as well.

So when I saw Teacher-Preparation Programs Again Have a Choice of Accreditors. But Should They? in Education Week, I immediately recognized that this was the wrong question—or at least incomplete.

Accountability, standards, and assessment have been pervasive my entire career in education, which began in 1984. Over that career, I have heard a consistent refrain about the failures of both K-12 education and teacher education.

As I have recently detailed, teacher education is, in fact, the new scapegoat for all that ails education.

I have worked through about ten combined iterations of standards and assessment expectations, include two different rounds of submitting the teacher preparation program I am solely responsible for now, the first being for NCATE and the for CAEP (mentioned prominently in the article linked above).

Through these experiences, I have witnessed that the same complaints of failure remain while each new round of standards and assessment promise to reform the system and bring great success (often for all students), only to be replaced in a few years under the blanket of the same crisis rhetoric and the same promises that never materialize.

This Kafkan nightmare is perfectly described by Gilles Deleuze, who also turns to Kafka:

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. In The Trial, Kafka, who had already placed himself at the pivotal point between two types of social formation, described the most fearsome of judicial forms. The apparent acquittal of the disciplinary societies (between two incarcerations); and the limitless postponements of the societies of control (in continuous variation) are two very different modes of juridicial life, and if our law is hesitant, itself in crisis, it’s because we are leaving one in order to enter the other.

In my home state of South Carolina, for example, the state adopted Common Core standards, planned to implement the assessment designed for those standards, purchased textbooks and materials aligned with the standards, trained teachers in the standards, and then dropped the standards for new SC versions of standards before Common Core could ever be fully implemented.

My first experience with accreditation of teacher education programs was early in my tenure in higher education. I was baffled both by the process (again, I am solely responsible for an entire program and all the data as well as the report submitted for that accreditation) and my colleagues’ almost complete uncritical obsession with the requirements. In short, the vast majority of my department’s time and attention was devoted to fulfilling the obligations of accreditation—not teaching, not scholarship, but standards, rubrics, and data tables mandated by the accreditation entity.

Just six or seven short years later, the process came back around again—nearly the same, but different. NCATE had been replaced by CAEP and standards were different along with the report itself and the broad expectations being both eerily different and the same.

Accreditation, I suspect, is a process that is perceived as a necessary layer of bureaucracy to insure some sort of consistency and fidelity among all teacher education programs across the U.S. This appears to be the same initial urge driving Common Core, for example.

Political leaders have used accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing for nearly four decades as a way to claim a commitment to higher expectations and better outcomes from the public education system. The public appears incapable over that time to examine closely the argument that schools are failing (the mainstream argument is both false and misleading) or the assertion that accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing will somehow address those problems.

Accreditation of teacher education is essentially a thinly veiled admission that there is no political or public trust of teacher educators, the field of education, or teachers.

Beneath that lack of trust, the accountability era for public education and the allure of accreditation are evidence that political leaders and the public fundamentally misunderstand teaching and learning.

Here is the sobering truth about teaching and learning: To teach is about offering the opportunity to learn; however, there is no way to guarantee that teaching will result in learning regardless of the quality of the teacher or the motivation of the student.

Accountability and accreditation are designed with the assumption that teaching and learning can be prescribed and clearly defined (standards) and then made visible with assessments that are valid and authentic.

Those assumptions are mostly hokum.

The standards and testing movement in K-12 education and the accreditation process for teacher education have proven to be what Oscar Wilde argued about how government addresses poverty: ““But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

Trying to meet the requirements of accreditation has made teacher educators less effective, has reduced the quality of courses and experiences for pre-service teachers, and has consumed an incredible amount of time and financial resources for teacher educators.

It is much ado about nothing.

The EdWeek question, then, is overly simplistic; the rise of AAQEP as an alternative to CAEP is the “illusion of choice” that masks the truly important choice—teacher education and education as a field need to abandon accreditation and seek instead to build a discipline.

Meeting the demands of accreditation is a waste of time and resources that should be dedicated to the things associated with disciplines such as history, psychology, sociology, etc.—reading and thinking deeply about the ideas and practices at the core of the field, conducting a wide range of research on those topics and problems, producing scholarship that informs an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning, and engaging students in those topics in ways that allow them to become the educators they seek to be.

To reject accreditation is to embrace higher expectations for teacher education, teacher educators, and teachers.

At the end of The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s macabre demise is a distraction for many readers who miss that this is a story about such rejections and not necessarily a tale about Gregor, but his family. After Gregor dies, “Then all three [Gregor’s family] left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now, and took the electric tram into the open air outside the city. The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun.”

Careful reading of the final paragraph reveals that the family’s obsession with Gregor, who himself had embraced a toxic bug life dedicated to erasing the family’s debt, has to be abandoned for their eventual happiness: “The greatest improvement in their situation at this moment, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling. Now they wanted to rent an apartment smaller and cheaper but better situated and generally more practical than the present one, which Gregor had found.”

Gregor’s sister becomes the symbol of a new, and better, possibility, a fully human life unfettered by the bug life swept into the dust bin.

See Also

The Metamorphosis at 100, Alexander Billet

Navigating Writing-Intensive Courses as a Student

Teaching writing as part of a course, or the primary focus of a course, is especially challenging for teachers. Managing a workshop approach and surviving the paper load are demanding elements when teaching writing and not simply assigning writing as part of the course assessment.

However, we less often acknowledge that writing-intensive courses that require students to participate in workshop environments, submit multiple drafts of major writing assignments, and navigate different expectations for student behavior and assessment are also challenging and even paralyzing for students.

Both assessment elements grounded in process and product as well as the structures of the workshop approach present students with expectations unlike traditional courses driven by tests and transmissional classroom structures (lecture, discussion).

Writing-intensive courses tend to approach assessment differently than traditional class-based one-session testing. Writing assessment includes, then, feedback on products (essays), meaning that the assessment is integral during the learning not simply something that occurs after the learning.

In writing-intensive courses, instruction and assessment are integrated, but students may also experience multiple rounds of assessment (feedback) and even multiple grades on the same product since several drafts are being submitted for teacher response and/or grades.

Along with the holistic nature of instruction and assessment, writing-intensive courses tend to require that students meet deadlines, submit work fully, and participate in the process—not just produce a product, especially in one sitting.

And that leads to the unique expectations of the workshop approach. The broad components of workshop tend to include time, ownership, and response.

For students, this means that their student behavior must include participation—such as drafting and submitting multiple drafts—over the entire course (time), must include students making their own decisions (ownership) in terms of drafting and revising their essays, and must include submitting work for multiple rounds of feedback (response) from the teacher and peers.

A course grade in writing-intensive courses is grounded in how well a student fulfills all of these dynamics, not just the singular quality of the final essays.

Ultimately, then, writing-intensive courses that require and allow students to submit multiple drafts have different expectations for student behavior throughout the course but also in terms of how that student is graded. Those different expectations (and thus different student behavior) include the following:

  • Understanding the writing process in terms of submitting work and meeting deadlines. Two aspects of this are important for students to rethink their participation in writing-intensive courses: first, essay submissions should all be good-faith attempts at the draft (not a “rough” but a first or second, etc., full submission, as if the student will not revise); second, submitting work fully and on time (meeting deadlines) is about fully engaging in the learning process, not a way to avoid having points deducted for being late.
  • Major essay assignments and multiple essay assignments as the primary evidence of learning. Since students tend to think about courses as “how do I earn X grade,” writing-intensive courses require students to rethink grades since the writing assignments tend to be the most important or the only evidence for those grades. Students must understand, then, how each draft will (or won’t) be graded, and then how a final grade will be determined for the course (portfolio assessment, for example, as a final and cumulative process versus averaging a list of grades over an entire course).
  • The role of process in learning and receiving a grade. In some courses, students are explicitly told effort (such as class participation) factor into grades, although often as a very small percentage. However, writing-intensive courses forefront effort in the form of participating as a writer: students brainstorming and drafting during class session, students peer conferencing, students conferencing with the teacher, and students submitting multiple drafts for feedback and then revising guided by that feedback. This means that course grades require this type of participation, rendering participation a minimum requirement, not optional.
  • Revising and editing instead of correcting. Submitting drafts, receiving feedback, and then revising to resubmit—this process is fundamental to writing-intensive course, but students who remain trapped in traditional ways of thinking about doing school also fail to understand the distinctions between revising/editing and correcting. Teacher feedback is both instruction and guidance for students to become their own agents of revision and editing. In other words, students should rethink and re-examine each draft fully, guided by the feedback but not simply walking through what is marked to “fix” that only.
  • Novice learner vulnerability and growing as a writer. One of the most crippling aspects of traditional grading and classroom dynamics is the deficit perspective that students enter a grading situation will 100% and must work not to lose credit or points. Oddly, this creates in students the compulsion to be perfect in the eyes of the teacher as the agent of their grade. Learning to write, however, require student vulnerability and transparency. To navigate a writing-intensive course, students must make good-faith efforts early and often throughout the course, fully realizing they are exposing their weaknesses and trusting that the process and growth will be honored over those initial struggles.
  • There is no finish line. Many students view learning as two fixed points: at the beginning is the learner who knows nothing (empty vessel) and then at the end is the finished (filled) learner. Writing, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition since all writers and all writing can be improved by the process. This means that any time designated for learning to write is a valuable span, but it is the time frame that is fixed or set—not the status of the learner or the quality of the product (essay).

Writing-intensive courses where students are learning to write and not just being assigned essays are also demanding because many times students must rethink their behaviors, less like traditional students and more like writers. These are challenging and overlapping conditions that often inhibit students navigating these courses successfully.

A key to making the transition from traditional student to engaged student-writer includes a better understanding of participation over a long period of time. In other words, while the final product of any essay is important, in a course designed to teach a student to write (or write better), the process itself is equally important; therefore, students need to be engaged in drafting, submitting, and revising throughout the course—and not simply trying to turn in a “great” essay in one shot.

Traditional courses that are transmissional and focus on the acquisition of content (disciplinary knowledge) tend to establish for students how they best can behave in order to succeed (or survive) as students. Writing instruction may often overwhelm these students in high school and college since writing-intensive classes are seeking a complex behavior (not factual knowledge but process) as well as asking students to behave in many new ways.

Here, then, I have circled back to why writing-intensive courses are so challenging for teachers since to be effective we must address all of the challenges facing students.

 

Student Agency, Authority, and Credibility as Writers

Each semester I teach, I become even more convinced that teaching writing is a journey, not a destination. And this semester has once again pushed me in that direction.

While it was just the second time I have taught the new upper-level writing/research course now part of our general education requirements (GER), it was in my 100-level GER course that struck me hardest, notably when a senior student sent the following message with a revised submission of the course major cited essay:

Attached is an updated copy. I don’t know if I have already said this, but thank you for being so helpful in all of these drafts! Also please let me know if it is going in the right direction or if I need to consider larger changes as opposed to these smaller edits.

This was the fifth submission of the essay, and the student has also met with me to conference about needed revisions.

What stands out here is the not-so-subtle message I have been receiving from this student and others—the “smaller edits” comment. Another student, exasperated, came very close to stating directly that I am being arbitrary and nit-picky.

My 100-level students are perfect examples of the problems associated with how a culture of grades degrades learning—and especially inhibits students from writing with agency, authority, and credibility.

Often, I am the first—and only—teacher who holds students accountable for foundational obligations related to formatting submissions and applying essential aspects of citation and scholarship.

Students have either had points deducted for formatting and citation or have simply been told they have “mistakes,” but that these are mere surface elements and thus not really important. Here, I think, is the seed of the student quoted above seeing my feedback as mostly addressing “smaller edits” even though my feedback was, in fact, substantive.

First, teaching any student to write, for me, is grounded in fostering some important foundational concepts about them as student-writers and developing scholars—how to represent themselves as purposeful writers and thinkers while establishing their authority and credibility.

Purposefulness is a difficult transition for students who have mostly been inculcated into a culture of rules about language and writing.

For example, I want students to set aside seeing their work as either correct or mistakes so that they focus on revision and editing their work—not merely correcting what I mark.

Instead of thinking “fragments are mistakes writers must avoid,” students are encouraged to think “what sentence formation am I using and what purposes do these purposeful sentence-level decisions serve in conveying meaning to my readers.” (The problem in student writing is not that fragments are “wrong,” but whether or not the student is aware of using a fragment and then if that use has effective purpose.)

Purposefulness in sentence and paragraph formation as well as choosing either to conform to conventions of grammar and mechanics or not is an essential element in establishing authority and credibility for student-writers and developing scholars.

This is key, I think, because the culture of grades creates a false dynamic in which some aspects of student performances of learning (writing) are deemed trivial and thus the holistic nature of demonstrating learning, or of expression, is corrupted for an analytic view of student behavior—the separate parts matter more than the whole while simultaneously some parts are rendered irrelevant since they simply cost the student a few points.

My approach to minimum requirements while requiring and allowing students to revise their work guided by feedback and conferencing seeks to honor the holistic nature of writers establishing their authority and credibility.

Especially in my 100-level courses and first-year writing, here is the structure I implement that helps students (ideally) move away from seeing some of their revision and editing being about “smaller edits” and toward viewing their work as a student-writer and developing scholar as a coherent whole:

  • Document formatting matters. I both teach and then require students to submit Word documents that show purposefulness and control over fonts (consistent throughout the document, including the header/footer) and font size, word processor formatting (margins, justification, hanging indents, spacing, page breaks, etc.), and file management (naming files with purpose and labeling subsequent drafts during the process). I explain to students that while these elements of submitting writing may seem “small” (and even trivial), these formatting elements establish in the reader’s (professor’s) mind an initial message about purposefulness and control—thus the student-writer’s authority and credibility.
  • Citation matters. I both teach and then require students to submit cited writing that meets basic expectations for citation format. Since I am in education, students in my courses primarily use APA so I focus on header format, title page, reference page, parenthetical citation, and subheads. These mechanical elements of citation, combined with document formatting above, are strictly addressed in the first submission, often meaning I do not accept the first or first few attempts made by students to submit work. I explain that these are all very easy to do, and failing to address these mechanical elements suggests, again, a lack of purpose, authority, and credibility. (Students are provided direct instruction in class and samples with notes along with being required or encouraged to conference with me.)
  • Sources matter. Despite detailed university guidelines about teaching first-year writing students how to search for high-quality sources, my students routinely demonstrate that they continue not to understand source quality (peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be more highly regarded in academia than books, for example; print sources, more than online; newer, more than older, etc.). Students also seem to lack the skills to search for those sources, relying on Google Scholar instead of searching through the library system that allows them to target searches. I work hard to scaffold experiences for students so that source quality and variety are addressed before they begin their writing; this still doesn’t work across the board, however. Students, for example, in the 100-level course mentioned above do a group project requiring high-quality sources, which can serve as a foundation for their individual essays. Yet, students will submit their essays without any of those sources and only online newspapers and magazines cited.
  • Using what seems “small” to foster substantive revision. When I focus on titles, subheads, and the need to synthesize sources, these tend to be elements of revision that students such as the one quoted above views as “smaller edits.” Yet, titles and subheads are about whether or not the student understands the primary and supporting focus of the essay (titles) as well as demonstrating a purposeful and compelling structure and organizational pattern (subheads) to the discussion or argument. Probably even more stressful for students is my emphasis on synthesizing sources. Typically, students paraphrase and quote extensively from one source at a time, plowing through their list of sources without regard for patterns found in the research or creating any sort of hierarchy for the importance of ideas related to their topic. Here, I am fostering disciplinary awareness by exposing them to the disciplinary differences between writing literary analysis and using MLA in high school and then transitioning to a social science course in college.
  • Openings and closings matter. Students have mechanical and not very compelling approaches to introductions (and clunky thesis sentences) and conclusions. They are drawn to making grand overstatements without offering any evidence for those claims—as The Onion brilliantly demonstrated: “For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation.” And they mostly feel compelled to open with vague statements that they then repeat in a final paragraph. Therefore, I work on students creating multi-paragraph openings and closings that depend on framing (establishing something concrete, such as a narrative, in the opening that the student returns to in the end) and that introduce and then extend a focus (broader and more complex than a clunky thesis statement, allowing questions as well as allowing the essays to work toward an idea or call to action).

In 1957, Lou LaBrant wrote:

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered….Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house.

I have been guided by this metaphor—building a house versus the blueprint—for many years, and I have also extended that into how houses are built from the rough work leading to the finishing work.

Above, I have made a case that the rough work (“smaller edits” often to students) and the finishing work (“larger changes,” or the substance, I think, to students) are impossible to separate from each other because it is a holistic venture to craft an essay from a blank page.


Related

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structureEnglish Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.