Thursday, October 18, 2007

Writing for English Literature Majors

I've spent a lot of time today thinking about student writing, though not in the context of composition. I think a lot of times that people think that the only kind of writing that English profs think about is composition-type writing. Or, conversely, that composition-type writing is supposed to ready students for all writing that they will do at the university level. Well, neither of these are true. While I'm not entirely convinced of the value of composition generally (in part because I'm "good" at teaching it according to all reports and methods of assessment and yet when I see those same students whom I've trained further along in their academic careers it seems to make no difference), I'll say for the moment that sure, maybe it does something for improving student writing or for preparing them for college-level writing. I'm not convinced of this, but maybe it does.

But what concerns me most this semester is the ability of the majors and minors that I'm teaching (many of whom are nearing the end of their tour of duty) to write effectively in literature courses. The bottom line is, from what I've seen, that students at my institution are not getting what they need from courses in the major in terms of training in writing in the discipline. No, they are not.

Now, here are my minimum expectations for what I think an English Major or Minor should be able to do at the time at which they get their undergraduate degree:

1) They should be able to write in a less formal way about literature, reacting and responding to it in a more personal way, because this is where I think more formal writing about literature begins.

2) They should be able to write a formal, short (3-5 page) literary analysis essay about one or two primary texts - no critical sources, something that depends mainly on making an argument and supporting that argument with careful close reading.

3) They should be able to write a research paper (10-15 pages) utilizing primary sources and critical secondary sources. Ideally, they would also be able to include some rudimentary theory, though this is more possible in some contexts than in others. Students should use MLA style correctly.

So here's the thing: my students, at my institution, don't seem necessarily to graduate with the above. They certainly get a lot of work with #1, and they do a pretty good job with that kind of less formal "reaction" sort of writing. And they're great with summarizing what they've read, and with regurgitating stuff from in class. But #s 2 and 3? Hmmmm.

From what I received from my students in my lower-division class for their first papers (of the #2 variety), I'd say that many students (I've only got a couple of sophomores in there, who legitimately might not have the background in doing this sort of writing - most are juniors and seniors, taking the class later than I'd like) are not learning how to do strong close reading in support of an argument in a traditional, assigned-topic essay. Indeed, I am having more than half of the class revise their essays before I'll assign a letter grade, because they just didn't do what was required of them. Note: I gave them a choice of topics. With each topic, I listed three things that the person must do to be successful on the essay, clearly bulleted. All of those that got revisions did either none or only one of those three things. And there was class time devoted to talking about the paper. I ran the topics by my BFF from high school tonight, who teaches high school. She felt like they were really reasonable and easy, so this isn't about the topics, for she assigns stuff that is more complex to her juniors and seniors in HIGH SCHOOL (although secondary ed in her state, and particularly in her district, is much better than the high school situations that my students come from). This isn't about clarity of the topics or of the assignment itself. Also, these students have all already completed comp, if not a great many other English classes. This is about something else.

I'll get to the "something else" in a moment. In my upper-level courses, where I emphasize research more, I have consistently found that students do not have the basic skills with citation, integrating quotations, using critical sources to support their claims, that students with an English major or minor should have. The thing here is not to chastise students for what they're not doing. It's to wonder what I can do to impress upon them the necessity of acquiring these skills and what I can do to help students to their best performance on these sorts of assignments.

Now, what's going on here? I have some theories:

  • Students don't realize the level of sophistication that is really required of the assignments that I give. They assume that they can leave things until the last minute, write the paper in one sitting without any revision, and that they will receive an A.
  • Students have never been taught how to write in a way that is deeply analytical, and so even if they feel "lost" when they sit down to write, they don't have the skills to get "unlost" in order to do well.
  • Students assume, based on past experience with other instructors, that what the assignment claims to require is not actually what the assignment requires. In other words, essays will be graded on a curve. Nobody will fail you if you turn something in.
What part of the blame lies with students?
  • Students at my institution tend to take too many courses in a semester, or too many courses of a similar kind in a semester. While 5 English courses may be doable in weeks one and two, they are not doable when you're in weeks 7 and 8 and when papers start coming due, not unless you're an insane person, as I was in a few semesters as an undergrad.
  • On top of poor course distribution and overload, students tend to have many priorities that come before school, which means that work or family will often come before doing schoolwork. This is actually less true of my non-trad students, which would seem to be counterintuitive, but there it is.
  • Students do not take me up on offers of help, time, or consultation on assignments, in spite of the fact that I spend a lot of time in class explaining my availability and the use that it will be to them. Note: this probably has a lot to do with my second bullet, as students don't have time to consult with me given their busy schedules.
BUT. Why do students do these things? For the blame does not only lie with them. What experiences do students have that make them think that these practices will work for them?
  • In other courses that they've taken, professors do not have a minimum standard. Rather, professors assume that the low end is the best they can hope for from students, and so grade inflation occurs.
  • With the teaching load here, some professors just no longer assign traditional literary analysis essays or even research papers (creative projects are VERY popular).
  • Coming out of a secondary ed situation that emphasizes standardized testing and personal writing, they are even less prepared than I was to write traditional essays.
And there are other factors very specific to my institution that only exacerbate the above related to curriculum.

But my point here is that I do feel committed in my literature courses to teaching students to write about literature. I think that writing about literature enables one to think seriously about it, and that it's difficult to think seriously and deeply without translating one's thoughts into writing. The disconnect comes when students themselves don't take seriously the very clear requirements that I outline, which they've learned that they don't need to take seriously because of institutional culture and prior experiences within that culture.

I don't think AT ALL that what I'm dealing with here, in most cases, is laziness. I think that many of my students honestly don't expect that their professors really have high expectations for them or even really read the writing that they submit. And so then they encounter me, and WOW is it a rude awakening. I comment A LOT - even on A papers - not only on the content but also on the writing. I pay attention to nit-picky things like too much reliance on passive voice and awkward transitions, and I engage with the claims that they make in the form of comments and questions. And I grade according to what I believe they should achieve - not according to what is submitted. In my comments, they witness me reading. And my style is not particularly warm and fuzzy. And no, there are no "creative" options that get them out of doing solid, properly annotated research (although I have rarely allowed a more creative option than the traditional research paper, and in those cases, research, properly annotated, is still required).

So, my own personal crusade, with the small percentage of students whom I reach, is to make sure they get out knowing how to do at least two of the three kinds of writing that I think that they should know how to do as majors (I don't emphasize research in lower-level courses). Yes, I expect them to be able to do careful analysis of a literary text when they leave any literature course that I teach. In upper-level courses, I expect them to be able to do that as well as to integrate secondary stuff. But yet, every semester, I have students who tell me that nobody has ever expected these things of them. STUDENTS WHO ARE MAJORS AND MINORS. This, my friends, is both gratifying (I'm great! They're learning things from me that they've not learned elsewhere!) and disheartening. They SHOULD be learning this stuff in LOTS of other places outside of my classroom.

So yeah. I'm thinking about student writing. And I'm feeling pretty hopeless about it because I'm feeling pretty isolated in the goals that I'm trying to reach.


Sisyphus said...

These all seem like totally reasonable expectations to me (but then, I'm a hardass and an evil bitch whose idea of "close" reading is their idea of "microscopically close" reading.)

I've never been cool with the creative paper option in a lit class rather than a creative writing class --- to me it smacks of not caring, for how are you going to evaluate it as "creative" or "uncreative"? (I have seen it work as one option in an in-class final, something like "what happens after the end of this book?")

All this wordiness is to say: Go, Crazy, go! Uphold the standards! Kick their little butts! Beat some euphony into them!

The Constructivist said...

I think I have a good twist on the creative assignment--in certain courses, I make it an option among many for the final project (including designing a teaching unit with rationales for goals, texts, and methods; doing a web authoring project that adds something significant to what's already out there on that text/author/topic; and a traditional research paper--all requiring research, btw), with the proviso that it must be in dialogue with a text or issue from the course and they must discuss the how and why of the dialogue in an author's note.

However, due to questionable quality, I'm scaling back the courses in which I'm offering that range of options for the final project.

I totally agree with you that the three kinds of writing in the major you focus on need to be taught and responded to at the intro level and repeated throughout the major. The idea that they need to develop, sustain, and support an argument in their first essay for one such intro class this semester has shocked some of my students. But then the course is also a gen ed "intro to the humanities" option, so many come into it thinking it'll be a breeze. Does your department handle its gen ed responsibilities like ours, making required intro courses for the major also gen ed humanities options?

Bardiac said...

I've thought some about my own pedagogy, and started to break down the sorts of projects I'm doing in different levels of classes. Like you, I was finding that my upper level students didn't handle secondary sources well, didn't read primary (or secondary) sources carefully, and couldn't manage an argument.

In my sophomore level classes now, I assign a couple of small assignments, typically. One is usually explication or close-reading oriented. Another asks the student to find a single secondary source and write a summary (citing and quoting and such properly), focusing on what the argument is and how it's made. And another asks students to start thinking about real questions they have of/about texts (but not having to answer those).

In my junior level courses, I try to push further, building those skills, and in the senior level course, I try to expect them to be able to handle a full research paper.

One problem is that we don't as a faculty seem to agree on what we want at any given stage, so things are all over the place. And we have 35 students in most classes, which is a lot if you want to focus on teaching writing well.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your thoughts, especially your ideas on how to teach skills at the lower levels.

k8 said...

This is such a huge issue, particularly for those of us in comp/rhet. There is always the question of the purpose of these writing courses. Are they to serve other departments' needs? Our own? Something else? In a recent issue of CCC, there is an article about the freshman writing course as a course in comp-rhet. I teach my courses this way, with an emphasis on print/digital cultures of reading and writing.

As for writing within the English major, your expectations seem right on. Students rise to our expectations - if we don't expect (and teach them how) to do good work, they probably won't. Keep expecting excellent, rigorous work!

As for creative projects...any time I've assigned one I've also required a written rationale of the project and the way(s) it makes argument "x". This forces students to reflect on the reasons why the "creative" approach is or isn't effective/appropriate/etc.

The_Myth said...

Basic writing communication skills should be expected from ALL grads, not just majors and minors.

I got rammed with bad student evals this past Spring because the students in a required class for their major enacted every single behavior you describe in your post. You see, it was apparently all my fault that they are semi-literate and can't write a short essay around a thesis statement of their own devising. I think I learned to do that by the age of 14.

I decided to quit grad school (and teaching) after that.

How can I possibly be expected to spend a lifetime teaching what NO ONE else is even bothering to validate to adult children who can barely craft a comprehensible paragraph?

Good luck! Keep fighting the good fight!

rwellor said...

I think another major part of it is declining reading skills (I know you were focusing on writing so this is kind of expanding the field). If students can't decode what they read (including assignments and any instructions/expectations you give them) then it is unlikely they can interpet and recode things into writing.

Nor, if they can't see patterns in argument or structure, are they likely to be able to work by example.

Everyone at every level of education seems to have this kind of problem. Talk to HS teachers or CC instructors and you hear the same thing. When good writers do show up at SVC we often find some instructor gave them a "Eureka" moment, which is why hiring good instructors/profs is key. It's probably also an argument for smaller course caps.

I wonder (but am too lazy to check) about studies of overall writing levels across eras? Are there fewer great writers but more adequate ones? Generally worse writers across all spectra?

We all seem to agree anecdotally, that's certain.

Marcelle Proust said...

I regularly teach explication de texte. And students divide into those who get it and those to whom the whole process remains mysterious. They claim no one else asks for this. I checked with my colleagues. Many, even most, of them require the same kinds of writing I do. What students hear is not always what we tell them; and what they tell us is not always, hmm, what our colleagues believe they have said.

m. minkoff said...

I agree so much with this post! The low expectations hurts both the kids for whom the bar is lowered, and those who are capable of writing a solid essay. These students are rarely given much critical advice, as their papers are already *good enough*

Ah, I'm not being very articulate, and there is much more I could comment on, but I hope you get my point.