Cart-horse reversal in writing pedagogy

I am completing my second semester teaching first-year writing-intensive courses at Shimer, and it is increasingly clear to me that much of traditional high school writing pedagogy is, to use the technical term, ass-backwards.

There is an overriding emphasis on presentation to the detriment of actual content — you need a “hook” for your reader in the introduction, you need a strongly stated (read: exaggeratedly simplistic) thesis statement, you need to aim for a broad application in the conclusion, etc. Meanwhile, very little thought seems to be given to how you select and connect the much-vaunted “three main points,” for instance, or basically anything else about how to really figure out what to say. Similarly, students need to learn all about documentation styles and proper citations and avoiding the dreaded plagiarism, but little thought is given to how they are supposed to be making sense of and using those sources — although the number they must cite is strictly enforced!

It’s almost as though all the incentives point toward making papers easy to grade at a glance, rather than laboriously teaching them how to actually, you know, construct a line of thought that’s worth the bother of writing down in the first place.

16 thoughts on “Cart-horse reversal in writing pedagogy

  1. Or now I’m thinking of “writing process” instruction, where the emphasis was yet again on producing a series of products instead of on what one might have rightly expected: namely, the “process” of actually “writing.” One must hand in a free-write or brain storm, then an outline, then a succession of drafts…. How does one go about thinking through a topic and coming up with an argument, though? You’re on your own!

  2. What do you think about implementing a logic requirement at the high school level as an easy, go-to solution for some of these ills? Or is this already in place in most curriculums? A recurring issue with my students is an inability to build a coherent case for anything.

  3. On my fill in the bubble teaching evaluations, my lowest score is always “provides direction on assignments” (or somesuch), regardless of the level of the course. As Adam notes, they are obsessed with formal criteria: length, font, number of citations, etc. They are upset when they ask, “How many sources do I need?” and I answer, “Whatever is appropriate?” Then they say, “What do you mean?” And we enter an infinite regress, “What do you mean what do you mean? The answer is pretty self-evident, isn’t it? However many you need to make your argument.” “So you want an argumentative essay?” “No, I want something coherent. If an argument is how you go about doing it, so be it. If you wan to do something analytical or interpretative, then so be it.” They find that unsatisfactory. “Will you give us topics?” “No. That’s up to you.” “How do we come up with a topic?” “Now we are talking: what interests you? What do you want to write about?” “No one has ever asked me. I don’t know.” But, no matter what I say, they always put quotations in italics.

  4. So I hate to be a pro-administration dick or anything, but it sounds like they’re right to grade you low on that standard. I say you go to war with the student body you have — if they need you to give them sample topics to help them get started, so be it.

  5. Perhaps. My experience, though, is that once they get past that hurdle and manage to find a topic on their own, they do much better than they otherwise would have. The average student sees clear progress in their ability to find a topic of interest to them and write (more or less) well on it over the course of a semester (i.e., twelve weeks), including compressed summer semesters (i.e., six weeks). Obviously, some of them never make it to that point. But then, maybe they’re the sort of student who mistakenly went to university. I used to be more strict in terms of guidance–this is what you can write on, this is a way to go about it, and so on. The essays were, on average, far worse than those where the students suffered the curse of freedom.

    To juxtapose, increasingly, I don’t go to class with a prepared lecture (even courses that are, formally, “lectures”). I set the readings and, roughly, the parameters of discussion; i.e., if Hobbes is the assigned reading, then it is likely inappropriate to talk about pets. I leave it up to my students to propose the discussion topics and so on. Occasionally, I’ll get them started, “This is what I found interesting…”, but I prefer not to do that. Given that I approach the classroom more or less the same way that I approach the assignments, my classroom related scores are nearly perfect. It seems that they are more able to get out of the mould of “The Lecture” than they are able to get out of the mould of “The Essay.”

  6. I try to strike the balance by presenting my paper topics as ideas that I think could work well, but encouraging them to talk to me if they want to do something different. I also try to constantly flag possible paper topics in class, so that when I do give them a list of topics, it has emerged out of the discussion to a large extent.

  7. Actually, it’s become almost a cliche in my classes that when students bring up a broad topic that doesn’t seem like it’d fit organically into the discussion (for instance, too much close reading required to support it, etc.), I’ll exclaim “paper topic!” and then we’ll change the subject — to the point where one day, I had to specify, “That’d make a great paper topic… [silence] … but I also think we should talk about it now.”

  8. I actually had an email from a student this semester (in a writing process class) which asked “Why can’t you just give me a topic to write on because I want an A in this class and I don’t want to spend all of this time writing proposals?” Since it’s a writing process class, they have to submit 1-2 page proposals with an annotated bibliography, and we spend some time in the library with research instruction. They also have a short meeting with me leading up to the proposal. A few of them have had to start their proposals over, but most of my students landed on something worthwhile that just needed a little tweaking, and those post-proposal meetings, I think, have a lot of value; the conversation usually works through typical writing feedback that they need to hear: “This topic is way to big,” “How would you outline and argue this thesis,” “What exactly is the thesis?”, “How do you assert your thesis while making this kind of argument?”, “Who would argue against this?” Sometimes these are obvious questions, but the ones we all ask ourselves.

  9. It’s great that people have better ideas about writing pedagogy than what I present — I’d like to think I do, too! But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m describing a pretty common method of high school writing instruction.

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