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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.