I know. Student writing is horrible. The sky is falling. Doomsday has come. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about the sordid state of affairs of student writing. I once hooped and hollered atop that bandwagon too. It was so easy to blame high school teachers and college writing instructors (or anyone else) for not preparing students adequately in the fine art of written argumentation.epigraph.png

Then, I got a job as a university writing instructor. I’ve come to see that the problem partly lies with me and my curmudgeon colleagues (its a blight that extends beyond religious studies). It’s our duty to teach writing too, we just don’t want to do it.[1] Student writing is also not that bad, if you give students a fighting chance.

I’m a traitor to the but-I-don’t-teach-writing cause. I know.

If I haven’t angered you to rage-close the browser tab, then let me explain. At one level, writing is a skill, not a “fact”; all students know how to write, but some may not be proficient at it. They need more practice – and guidance in the Process.

When I say instructors need to teach writing, I really mean they need to apportion time and structure activities that allow students to critique and develop their own ideas. Once students thoughtfully struggle with their ideas and arguments, they are more likely to want to “own” those ideas. As a result, almost magically, their writing will get better. In our religious studies courses (or humanities more broadly), we do not need to formally “teach writing,” as much as we need to give students the opportunity to work out their ideas in a strategic and structured manner. Teaching “writing” is just code for teaching critical thinking skills.

One of the key aspects of my writing courses focuses on (re)shaping student writing habits. We talk at length about “The Writing Process” and students develop their own ideal Process. While many facets are individual (some do their best writing in the library, some in their rooms; some listen to background music, some prefer silence; and so forth), other facets are non-negotiable. My writing course is structured around these non-negotiable facets, namely drafting, peer-review, and revision. Ideally, my goal is to have students incorporate these elements into their natural Process, but like many new habits, they can be hard to adopt.[2]

In the non-teaching-writing classroom, it can be easy to omit drafting, peer-review, and revision (hereafter DPR) activities. But these are precisely what students – and us scholars – need to produce our best writing. If done skillfully, DPR can all be handled by students themselves; there is no extra work for our already-exhausted teaching souls. I will admit, however, it does take time to devise drafting prompts, structured peer-review sessions, and direction for revision. Undoubtedly, these activities will go wrong before experience teaches us how to make them right (online research will certainly help too, or, gasp, conversation with colleagues about our failures).

Of course, I do think students benefit greatly from our expert insights on their ideas. If we can provide verbal, recorded audio, or written commentary at early stages in the Process, this will greatly assist students in developing their ideas. Spending time to get students to talk about their research in class with other is also valuable.

Overall, here are some thoughts about incorporating writing good critical thinking habits into your non-teaching-writing-classroom based around DPR.

Drafting: A simple recipe for disaster is to assign a big writing project due at the end of the term which does not also formally schedule several “checking-in” assessments along the way. These formative assessments could be a simple conversation with individual students or classroom activities where students discuss the early stages of their work. Drafting is another option. This does not have to be a full draft of the final essay. I’ve seen colleagues assign small segments of the essay that are due regularly throughout the term, such as drafting the introduction with a thesis, or body paragraphs with solid evidence, or the conclusion with the potential significance of the findings. More commonly, I’ve seen colleagues assign research proposals or annotated bibliographies, which discuss proposed research questions and potential lines of argument. Personally, I prefer (when possible) to assign smaller writing assignments that allows students to work on certain facets of their larger argument for their final paper. This works best if students don’t have an open-ended final research project, but are expected to address a pre-determined topic or theme at the end of the term (but I’m sure savvy instructors could still craft prompts that function in an open-ended manner). Overall, there are plenty of drafting options to help stimulate student thinking along the way, including daily writing reflections, for example. [3]

Peer-Review: It is important to remember that drafts can also be read by other students (even as homework), if reading students’ work is too time consuming for an instructor. Peer-review can be tricky to run effectively, however. One thing to keep in mind is that students will need assistance on how to critique the work of others; offering truly constructive criticism and thoughtful insight on writing is a skill in itself (as I’ve painfully learned as a writing instructor). Consequently, review sessions need to be highly structured. Provide a commentary rubric or the grading rubric you would use for evaluating the assignment. Or, at the very least, provide a list of things for students to pay attention to. I’d suggest saving the best papers from each term and sharing them during subsequent peer-review sessions. The entire class can read and comment upon the paper(s), thus helping to align expectations about the review process. I’d also strongly suggest having student converse with each other after providing written commentary; talking can easily clarify confusions on both sides. There are numerous discussions of running peer-review online, I’d suggest finding a method that might work best with your class and tinker with it.

Revision: The purpose of doing the above activities is so students think through their ideas and potentially see how others attempt to tackle the same or similar issues. Depending on the drafting assignment (suggestions above), you would have to decide how to have students build off of their initial insights. In other words, what is the next step in the Process? Does their thesis statement need to be re-thought (and possibly re-drafted)? Does their research proposal need to be more focused and peer-reviewed again? Is their annotated bibliography missing an important work? Will students’ smaller writing assignments dovetail cleanly into their larger argument or are there potential flaws which need to be redressed? While some of these interventions can be performed by other students, instructor commentary (or even better, conversation) will prove invaluable. Importantly, only work that will be revised merits extensive feedback, there is little pedagogical value in heavy commentary on final products – the real critical thinking work has already been done.

A final note: There are numerous other suggestions to consider as well when focusing on the Writing Process. One that was not immediately apparent to me was “exposing” myself as a writer to my students. I now regularly tell my classes about all of the writing projects I need to engage professionally as a writer: conference proposal, book review, dissertation chapter, journal submission, and so forth. I share with them the struggles, setbacks, and new insights gained through developing my work. It’s important for students to see or hear about writing that isn’t published, that isn’t perfect, that needs further reflection. By seeing the care that goes into our professional work, students can come to emulate that process.

Notes:

*Some of my comments here developed out of my ruminations on abandoing page-lengths for student writing.

[1] Duty might seem like a strong word, but I’ve used it purposefully. If we consider our course goals to include cultivating critical thinking skills, this almost certainly includes (there are reasonable exceptions) some form of writing assessment. As you will see, I do not consider the teaching of writing in the non-teaching-of-writing-classroom to be a review of low-level mechanics or refinement of diction, but the critique and development of ideas that normally happens in the Writing Process. In this case, the teaching of writing is, simply, the teaching of critical thinking.

[2] I’ll say it again, but now as a footnote: So-called “good writing” is not the memorization of facts. Most students are fully aware of the elements of a good thesis or how to make a strong argument. In many circumstances, what limits them is not their misunderstanding of these facts, but the underdeveloped ideas they have. By spending time on their ideas (researching, conversing, debating, refining, reflecting, etc. ) students generally come to care for those ideas. When folks don’t care about their ideas, they hand in “poorly written” work or plagiarize it.

[3] Even regular, short responses to readings can include a few comments by students on their relevance to a proposed final project. In other words, responses to readings don’t always need to be simple summary.

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