FYW Students Respond to Warner’s The Writer’s Practice: Progress, Not Perfection

When John Warner released The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing soon after his Why They Can’t Write, I highly recommended both volumes for those teaching writing (here and here). Of course, a much better barometer of the value of books on how to write and how to teach writing is to put them in the hands of students and teachers.

A bit past midway through this fall semester of 2019, my first-year writing students have just finished reading and reflecting on The Writer’s Practice; the final reflections and our in-class debrief yesterday revealed high praise and key lessons we who teach writing can learn from what my students valued about the book, and how they framed those lessons for them as students and writers.

One student began her reflection as follows:

As I opened up The Writer’s Practice to read the final section, I felt myself experiencing emotions similar to those when I am about to finish a really wonderful piece of fictional writing. This feeling for me is more guttural, and it comes about when I am truly sad or upset to be finishing a piece. Most of the time it is because there is a change in the plot that I didn’t enjoy, or I just truly don’t want the happily ever after to conclude. But I was genuinely confused as to why I experienced this feeling when reading the final few sentences of this piece. Never in my life has I been saddened by the conclusion of reading a book for school, fiction or nonfiction, besides The Catcher and the Rye and now this book. Because of this, I have come to the conclusion that I truly did enjoy reading this book. And I believe it was mostly because of the informal language used throughout. The way in which Warner speaks to the audience is something very intriguing to me, and it made me feel like I was holding a conversation with an actual person instead of reading a boring and monotonous book for school.

In the two sections of FYW I teach, I read in reflections and heard in our discussion some powerful patterns throughout the student endorsements of Warner’s book as an effective textbook for teaching writing. Those patterns include the following:

  • One student expressed relief that Warner encouraged progress, and not perfection. In fact, many students recognized that Warner’s lessons combined with my approach to teaching writing had significantly reduced their levels of stress and anxiety about writing. The overwhelming result of reducing stress and anxiety for students as writers is that they are more eager to write, they produce better early drafts of their essays, and they are also more motivated to revise (and even begin again) in order to produce the essays they want to write. In short, Warner’s messages resonate with and compliment my commitment to having students choose their topics and types of essays as well as my low-stakes approached to teaching (delaying grades, emphasizing feedback and revision, and fostering a writing and learning community among students and with me as a mentor/teacher).
  • Several students responded directly to Warner speaking from his own humble authority as a practicing writer, an authority grounded in his recognition that becoming a writing is a journey, and not a destination. Here, I think, was one of the most powerful aspects of how students praised Warner’s book: students valued that Warner did not speak down to them; they felt respected and appreciate the casual and empathetic tone Warner maintains throughout the book. A common response was that teaching and textbooks can too often be condescending, and students have found that this book and some of the different aspects of my teaching and writing instruction honored their basic human dignity.
  • In terms of nuts-and-bolts writing lessons that were effective because of Warner’s text, I would highlight that students almost universally came to recognize and value the role of having a clear audience at the center of their work as writers. I have always struggled with helping students move away from writing for the teacher/professor (working mostly as compliant students) and toward thinking and working more as writers (drafting for real audiences). Students reading and engaging with Warner’s text while completing my second essay assignment, a public essay that incorporates hyperlinks for citation, was mentioned as very effective experiences for a number of students, especially in terms of writing with an audience in mind and writing by choice about a topic that interests and even invigorates the writer/students.
  • Broader and foundational lessons (ones that are essential for students making the transition from high school to college, from writing like a student to writing as a scholar) include students rethinking what essay writing entails (different disciplines have different expectations for essays), students moving away from rules-based thinking to conventional awareness, and students thinking and working more purposefully through their writing process. The one-size-fits-all effect of the five-paragraph essay (which all of my students bring to the class in some form) and the tyranny of grammar rules and writing mandates definitely were at least strongly confronted if not entirely debunked through the combination of students reading Warner and receiving similar messages in my class.

As a teacher, specifically of writing, this experience with assigning Warner’s The Writer’s Practice has reinforced the importance of the relationship among the teacher, students, and the textbook. When the messages and learning environment are cohesive, like a good piece of writing, everything is more effective.

My initial recommendation for this book is now strongly supported by actually incorporating it into my FYWs, but I must hasten to add a final word of caution as well.

This really positive experience with teaching writing and with students showing real and  often observable learning as writers also exposes one of the most challenging aspects of formal writing instruction and learning in formal schooling: Even as first-year college students, these young writers are at a very early stage of development as writers, and thinkers.

Once again, placing too much emphasis on evaluating my teaching, evaluating the students’ writing, or evaluating the effectiveness of an FYW course is quite dangerous and likely very misleading.

Many of the students expressing effusive praise for Warner stumbled mightily in the writing of those reflections, and continue to struggle in their formal essay assignments. People evaluating as outsiders those students’ writing would likely find it hard to identify the growth (or quality), especially the changes in attitudes these students have experienced about writing forms and the writing process.

For students as writers and me as a teacher of writing, it remains as issue of progress, not perfection.

Students as Writers and Thinkers: Another Grading Dilemma

A high school ELA teacher who completed the certification program where I teach was telling me recently about one of her students. The student, the teacher explained, had submitted an essay that the student worked diligently on, completing multiple drafts.

The teacher noted that the final essay showed marked improvement in the writing, but grading the essay also posed a dilemma because despite substantive feedback on the content from the teacher, the student simply made very little progress in thinking well about the topic.

person holding ballpoint pen writing on notebook

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Having taught high school ELA and then at the college level for 18 years each, I quipped, “That’s what Bs are for,” adding, “Maybe a B+.”

I wasn’t being as cavalier as it seems because I have navigated this problem hundreds of times since most of my teaching of writing has been situated in the lives of teenagers and young adults. Compounding the concern for brain development—that this age group is still developing the ability to think critically and deeply—is, for me, my own practice of de-grading and de-testing my classes.

In other words, this scenario is one of dozens that highlights why grading is often misleading and almost always harmful to the learning process.

In a reasonable world, this teacher would be allowed simply to express to the student this reality—the writing is exceptional for showing improvement, but the thinking on the topic remains trapped in simplistic and unsupported ways.

And that assessment in the form of expository feedback can be shared in this spirit: This is not a negative criticism of your effort, or your ability, but a fair reflection of your current growth, a snapshot of your journey to writing and thinking more complexly and in more compelling ways.

For teachers of writing, this problem also asks us to face key elements of giving students feedback and grading when required. The challenge revolves around having clear goals for the writing assignment, and then being able to contextualize those goals by student characteristics such as brain development (a really challenging concern).

Here are some of the common issues teachers of writing face when working with teenagers and young adults, problems that occur at the intersection of writing proficiency and thinking well:

  • Students make a large number of extreme claims, rarely offering credible evidence in compelling ways. Yet, the students have a high command of the language and construct effective sentences and paragraphs as well as relatively cohesive essays.
  • Students submit a jumbled draft, seemingly carelessly constructed (surface features, formatting), but includes several strong claims linked to solid evidence. Sentence structure, paragraphing, and essay coherence are spotty at best.
  • Students submit a well structured essay with solid sentence and paragraph formation; surface features are also solid. The essays pose a manageable number of reasonable claims linked to evidence in traditional ways (for example, all claims about a text are connected to quotes from the text); however, that evidence is thin, from sources that are not credible, or doesn’t support the claim (the quote doesn’t support the claim).

Just to name a few common challenges above, but the focus here is that each of these situations is common and made complicated by the need to grade; each is, in fact, not as challenging for offering feedback, especially to support revision.

The evaluation culture of schooling works against both student growth as writers and thinkers, in fact, because summative evaluation de-contextualizes artifacts of learning from the larger realities of human development.

Grades also stunt some of the essential elements of learning, notably that errors are often not to be avoided, but are essential for growth.

For example, many of my students in first-year college writing submit work that is mostly claims, no evidence, or work that is narrowly grounded in the “all evidence is quoting” trap they have mis-learned from writing too much literary analysis in high school (such as in Advanced Placement Literature and Composition).

Less of my instruction is about writing in those cases, although I tend to find that young writers are lazy and careless with word choice, sentence formation, and paragraphing, but more about the substance of their claims and their ability to find, choose, and incorporate effective evidence.

Young people, we must remember, live in experiences outside of schooling where being persistent, loud, or assertive results in simplistic or even false claims being viewed as credible. And young people often have not reached a level of brain development to investigate critically claims and evidence.

To teach writing is inextricable from teaching thinking. Simultaneously, those of us teaching writing can distinguish between something like good writing that can sit next to poor thinking, and flawed writing that includes important aspects of complex thinking.

Much to our chagrin, we almost always have to grade the submitted writing sample—even when we are aware that many of our teenagers and young adults simply will not think complexly for several more years despite our best effort to nudge them along that path.

Ultimately, assigning, responding to, and then assessing/grading student writing requires that we very clearly identify what our goals are for the writing assignment and the students, that we acknowledge the tension between responding to and assessing/grading both the writing and thinking in writing samples, and that we find ways to resolve how assessment/grading inhibits and even deforms those learning goals (such as delaying grades).

As I approach forty years of teaching teenagers and young adults to write and think, I have remained fairly vigilant in my demands for their ability to grow as writers while also becoming more and more patient with the time it takes for them to become the critical thinkers I hope they will be.

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.

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?

First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

“How much we should emphasize academic citation in the first-year writing classroom has long been a matter of debate,” explains Jennie Young, director of the first-year writing program at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Then Young argues: “However, I’d like to take it one step further: I suggest that we stop teaching it entirely.”

I taught high school English for 18 years, much of that instruction focusing on teaching writing and preparing students for college. Since then, I have been a professor in higher education, including over a decade teaching (and briefly directing) first-year writing.

woman writing on notebook

Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Young’s provocative and compelling proposal speaks to many of the problems I have experienced with teaching first-year writing as well as with providing faculty the guidance and support they need to teach first-year writing (and writing in general)—especially those faculty outside the fields of composition and English.

Students typically come into first-year writing with a very narrow and distorted understanding of academic writing and citation; they have mostly written cited essays in English (and thus have very little awareness of the wide range of conventions for writing across academic disciplines) and have been inculcated into thinking “everyone uses MLA.”

Faculty charged with teaching first-year writing often struggle with teaching writing broadly because most college faculty are academics who write (by necessity and often begrudgingly) and not writers who happen to teach or do scholarship (this second category is where I reside).

These of course are not the only problems I have experienced, but they do serve as solid foundations for entering into a dialogue with Young’s call for not teaching academic citation in first-year writing based on four powerful reasons:

  • The vast majority of our students will never use an academic citation system after they graduate. Most writing is now digital and uses active links to document source material.
  • It hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing, such as clarity, correctness and rhetorical effectiveness.
  • There are other ways to attribute credit. Journalists, for example, just write “according to” and provide the information and the date if it’s relevant.
  • The citation systems change from style to style and update to update. Why are we spending so much time insisting on something that’s not standardized across disciplines and is going to change the minute MLA decides to make arbitrary changes (to an already arbitrary system) in order to justify yet another new edition?

As I have examined before about my own instruction in first-year writing, I seek ways to scaffold student experiences in order to first dismantle their learned misunderstandings and garbled sense of disciplinary writing/citation and then to help them reconsider evidence-based and cited writing at a conceptual level.

Young’s first and third bullet above speak directly to my own teaching and assignments since I ask students-as-writers to investigate the diverse ways writers cite (I also emphasize journalism and on-line writing that incorporates hyperlinks) while introducing them to cited writing through hyperlinking so that we can focus on choosing high-quality sources and writing well instead of the tedium of formatting.

For students and writing instructors, however, I have to pause at Young’s use of “teaching” and ask that all of us charged with teaching writing in higher education reconsider some key aspects of first-year writing as well as the entire writing program at our colleges and universities.

Broadly, faculty must understand and also support the explicit goals of first-year writing and the writing program; obviously this assumes those goals have been decided and are available for faculty and students.

Young, I think, is pushing against the purposes of first-year writing: Is first-year writing designed to prepare students as writers and informed thinkers, or is first-year writing designed to prepare students as academic writers during their college experience?

These are not trivial questions in terms of whether or not we support Young’s argument about dropping citation instruction in first-year writing.

One of the tensions I have witnessed in my providing faculty development for colleagues teaching first-year writing is that I tend to work big-picture in terms of fostering students as good writers (not primarily disciplinary academic writers) while also cultivating student awareness of the more narrow (and often tedious) aspects of disciplinary academic writing.

Here is where I struggle with the word “teach” and also acknowledge that Young is making an excellent point about assessment and grades for students in first-year writing.

So here are the conditions of first-year writing that must be addressed when considering Young’s proposal.

All courses are inherently contracts between faulty and students while also being contracts among faculty. Students expect to receive identified instruction in any course, but faulty also teach each course with the understanding that students have had other courses that address content and behaviors that inform that instruction.

First-year writing—like general education requirements and introductory courses—has obligations to both each student and the entire curriculum of a college or university.

If we step back from Young’s specific proposal, I think the essence of her argument is one that is deeply compelling to me as a writing instructor: First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.

As many of those with whom I have worked to guide and direct first-year writing have come to repeat, no writing-intensive course is an inoculation. I would add, especially first-year writing.

The teaching of writing, whether discipline-bound or not, takes a great deal of time and several writing-intensive courses over the entirety of any student’s formal education.

All colleges and universities with first-year writing and writing programs (and ideally several writing-intensive courses designed to address the goals of that program) must confront at least Young’s argument in terms of what any first-year writing course can accomplish.

Since, as Young notes, academic citation is discipline-specific and those style sheets are in a constant state of flux, it seems quite reasonable to focus on the broad elements of writing well and being well-informed during first year writing while also conceding some space and time to introducing students to academic citation (fostering awareness, not teaching and assessing it).

Academic citation can and should be left to upper-level writing courses and courses in a student’s major where the tedium has at least some relevance in the moment of performing at a high level in a discipline in order to achieve a degree (and where faculty in that major can make informed decisions about what those majors need, as they say, in the “real world” after college).

The great irony about first-year writing and writing programs in higher education is that they are simultaneously framed as essential since they are charged with incredibly high-stakes expectations (teach all first-year students how not to plagiarize and how to select high-quality sources to incorporate into flawlessly formatted citation guidelines while also being nuanced and well informed about the topic) but are often under-staffed or staff in haphazard and poorly supported ways while also receiving inadequate funding and allowed to exist in conditions that work against those lofty goals.

First-year writing is an introduction to a next step as writers and thinkers for college students, and it is an introduction in many ways to college itself.

First-year writing, again, is not an inoculation, and Young’s call for removing academic citation from what we demand of first-year writing instructors and students is the least we can do to create the sort of courses that serve well both our students and out curriculum goals.

See Also

Citation Matters, Kelly J. Baker

On Citation and the Research Paper

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

Real-World Citation versus the Drudgery of Academic Writing

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.