Posts Tagged ‘Student Writing’

I’ve had a few conversations with a student friend lately about her experiences at a Christian High School. She criticized aspects of the curriculum that included paper assignments like “Discuss why Islam is wrong. Use bible verses.” As she pointed out, using one religion’s sacred text to disparage another religion is problematic, but what I found most interesting about an assignment like that is that it requires students to: 1) know something about Islam, and 2) support an argument with evidence. Some public school students probably make their way through high school without either of these things. Subsequently, this student won the made-up award (what award isn’t made up?) for “best use of bible verses” in a paper exploring religiosity and attitudes toward medicine.

As an aside, biblegateway.com is apparently a good place to find bible verses, though it is apparently easier if you already know something about the bible – my searches for things like “procrastination” turn up nothing but a more experienced person can find things like this:

But about going further [than the words given by one Shepherd], my son, be warned. Of making many books there is no end [so do not believe everything you read], and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

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Despite the fact that I often complain about students, I would like to recognize one of my favorite aspects of having the same students multiple semesters in a row: the ability to witness student improvement. Once in a while, somebody that I know as a C-student will come into a second or third semester with me and will suddenly say things indicating that he or she has done the reading and then use this information on quizzes, papers, and exams. When I noted an increase in a particular student’s class participation from the previous semester, the student replied, “I know, I stepped up my game.” As a professor, I love seeing students step up their game. These situations also remind me, however, that this is something that a student has to want to do and that these increased efforts have little or nothing to do with me.

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Because I look at a lot of student writing, I sometimes think of things like grammar and punctuation.  Other times, journal editors bring things to my attention (like the fact that there should only be one space between sentences – though I can’t resist using two when writing).  A relatively recent Slate article explored the use of logical punctuation, which seems to be arising out of the same common-usage patterns that lead to a singular “they.”  Logical punctuation is the placement of punctuation outside of quotation marks, even in situations where the placement does not affect the meaning.  While I would not include a question mark in a quotation that did not originally include it, then, logical punctuation suggests that commas and periods don’t belong inside the quotation marks, either.

It is easy for me to get behind something like a singular “they” because it makes practical sense.  Despite the fact that it also seems practical, I am hesitant about logical punctuation for two reasons included in the article:

If it seems hard or even impossible to defend the American way on the merits, that’s probably because it emerged from aesthetic, not logical, considerations. According to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, it was instituted in the early days of the Republic in order “to improve the appearance of the text. A comma or period that follows a closing quotation mark appears to hang off by itself and creates a gap in the line (since the space over the mark combines with the following word space).” I don’t doubt Feal, but the appearance argument doesn’t carry much heft today; more to the point is that we are simply accustomed to the style.

Basically, I think that logical punctuation is ugly.  I prefer “they.” to “they”.  That period outside of the quotation marks looks so far from the word that ends the sentence, while I guess I am used to seeing space between words and the quotation marks themselves.  Like putting one space after sentences, I don’t see myself taking up logical punctuation any time soon.  It would, however, save me a lot of time when grading student papers, since they seem to use it exclusively.

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Given my former statement that instructors are letting students off the hook for their failure to complete assigned readings, I have tried to hold students to higher standards when grading.  This is especially true for writing assignments.  This includes requiring students to have things like thesis statements that they support with relevant examples.  In one course, I required students to write brief summaries of some topic that had stood out to them during the previous section of the course, asking them to combine the information in their readings to look at something from a different perspective.  These papers were okay at best.

Although there was some improvement as the semester went on, students seemed nearly incapable of writing an original thesis statement and supporting that statement with data.  While I am not sure why this is the case, I was interested in on particular comment on a student’s course evaluation:  “Dr. Smith asked us to write summary papers after each unit.  When he graded the first papers, he graded them as persuasive essays, expecting an argument and support in the papers.  This made it difficult to write the papers.”  Based on this sentence, I’m not sure what exactly made the papers difficult to write (the combination of summary and argument? conflicting instructions and grading?) but I was struck by the use of the term “persuasive essays.”  To me, all essays should be persuasive.  This student, however, considers persuasive essays to be a particular type of writing that is separate from most writing.  In future classes I’m going to explore this language further to see if I can help students bridge the gap between persuasive essays and essays.

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Faculty were discussing connections between language and gender at a recent campus event when one professor professed disdain for the disappearance of the word “one” in formal writing.  “One,” this professor argued, was previously used much more frequently and is, obviously, a gender-neutral way to describe a person.  Another professor mentioned student writing specifically and noted with a laugh that students tend to use “they.”  The laugh seemed to indicate a joke about her students’ lack of grammatical abilities, but in making this joke she seemed to overlook the more profound meaning of her statement.

Whether or not the word “one” was once more common in formal writing (I’ve read enough work by dead social theorists to suspect that “he” was the preferred pronoun in sociology circa 1950), the rise of the singular “they” should not be condemned, it should be embraced.  When professors look down their noses at students they see as poorly trained they are ignoring the fact that these students (and the fluid qualities of language) have effectively solved the problem of awkward “s/he” constructions that have plagued us in the decades since we realized that over half of our society is not, in fact, male.  All we need to do is put down the red pens and let the transition run its course.

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I’ve been teaching college students for five years and in this time I have encountered a lot of students who were bad writers.  I’m reminded of this as I sit in front of a pile of student essays, many of which are lacking in basic spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.  I have encountered at least two essays that include the textese word “u.”

A recent post on the Chronicle website details some of the difficulties of dealing with student writing, including this example:

During a conference with another student, “Belinda,” I mentioned the subject of childhood reading. “Books are great,” Belinda declared. “Nancy Drew mysteries, Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka. I love them all.”

“Good,” I said. “Now you need to do what the authors of those books did.”

“What’s that?”

“Master the basics of the sentence,” I said.

Belinda turned huffy. “But my mother teaches English.”

Being used to spontaneous outbursts of illogic from students, I replied politely, “Perhaps she can help you learn how to create sentences properly.”

Belinda changed tactics. She leaned forward and asked, almost conspiratorially, “What do I really need to do to get an A?”

Acting flirtatious may have gotten her high grades in high school, but I said, “You need to clear up comma splices and eliminate sentence fragments.”

Belinda waved one hand dismissively and laughed. “That’s what my professor said last semester.”

Apparently she expected a new instructor to be more original in evaluating the quality of her work.

I walked Belinda through my former professor’s tried-and-true worksheets about fragments and commas, but her next paper displayed the same problems that her previous ones had. This flummoxed me. Graduate students in English write without having to think about the rules; in fact, grad students may not be able to explain the rules or even diagram a sentence, since they intuit what to do when they write. Belinda did not share that gift, nor did a number of other freshmen.

Unfortunately, there are no solutions (yet… this is the second part of a series so I hope that the author will include some suggestions to help deal with these issues eventually).  If the experiences of this person, who was a graduate student teaching English composition, are indicative of those who teach English composition in general, this goes a long way to explain the poor writing abilities of my own students.  Of course, if basic improvements can be made to the writing abilities of freshmen in mandatory composition courses, those like me who devote large amounts of time in each course to the improvement of student writing may be able to spend that time focusing on the content of student essays rather than the mechanics.

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