Monday, February 22, 2016

When? A question about Student Writing

I just graded a small stack of short papers by the students in my senior seminar, and I have to say, they were stellar, every single one, with one a bit more stellar yet.

The thing is, I don't know why.  I mean, I feel like I'm smacking my head against a brick wall in my other courses as far as teaching writing.  I spend time working on writing in various ways in every class I teach, but I don't always feel like it helps.  (Sometimes, of course, a student just really gets it suddenly.)

Are these students in the senior seminar in English because they were always good writers? 

Or have we done something to help them become good writers? 

Or a mix?

(When I say stellar, I really mean it.  They all had strong introductions, addressed the assignment well, use quotations to make their points stronger, and let me with something to think about in their conclusion.  I think there was one with one or two proofreading boo-boos, but otherwise, they were well proofed and had interesting, well-crafted sentences.)

And the discussion we had last week was really good.  Maybe they're just super smart, good students, and somehow ended up together in this one class?


  1. Sometimes that happens (smart class all around) but it's also you, so rejoice!

  2. Enjoy! And it would be interesting to hear from the students themselves what they think is the reason.

    1. I asked them, and they pretty much said they'd learned in grammar school or high school. One said he'd learned when he became an English major by modeling his work after the writings he was reading for classes.

      They grew to a general consensus that they'd self-selected as English majors.

      But damn, they're such a good class! Great writing and thoughtful discussions!

  3. I think it's a mixture of both. It's not like anyone is born writing well, especially in a quirky and specialized genre like the literary analysis paper, so they have to have learned it somewhere, and then polished their skills quite a bit over the years. Practice and experience count; I think we often forget how much.

    But, on the other hand, I think aptitude also counts, and so do various other factors that writing teachers can't really do anything about (like how much the student reads, or whether they grew up in a language-rich household). And one of the reasons why teaching writing often feels like banging your head against the wall is that teaching usually exacerbates those differences among students, instead of erasing them, like we feel instinctively that it should. The good ones have higher potential to begin with, and if they get an education that helps them reach that potential, they're going to leave a lot of the others behind in the dust. It doesn't mean they aren't all learning, just that in most cases the progress is slow and incremental, but in a few, it's massive leaps forward into exciting new territory. I'm not sure there's anything we can do to even it up, or that we should do anything even if we could.

  4. Anonymous7:12 AM

    The student who noted that he/she had modeled their writing on that of good writers has highlighted something that's very important. Even students with good basic aptitude, but who haven't read much, are starting with a huge disadvantage.