Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bad writing ≠ bad writer

I've been thinking a lot about Dr. Crazy's two recent posts about student writing. They're mostly pushing back against the idea that "students today" (especially students at regional public institutions like hers and mine) just can't write, are graduating from high school with basic skills that are abysmally bad, and that there's nothing for a professor in a writing-intensive field to do but throw her hands up and grade generously since there's no hope for improvement now.

I've always been with Dr. C on the last part--one of the reasons I'm a tough grader is that I believe in my students' ability to improve (and if they don't, it's on them)--but I have to admit that I've always assumed that those students who write badly write badly because they're starting out with poor skills. I mean, it stands to reason, right? If a kid turns in a paper with ungrammatical, incomprehensible sentences, it must mean that his skills are pretty bad (or that he wrote the paper in 35 minutes or while drunk). But Dr. Crazy makes a persuasive case that this isn't necessarily so. She writes:
I teach upper-division English majors, and sometimes they still, unaccountably, submit writing that is wordy, awkward, ungrammatical, and BAD. Bad like there aren't coherent paragraphs. Bad like they don't appear to recognize the meaning of the "sentences," if you can call them that.

Part of this is laziness, but that's not the whole story. Most of the story is usually that you are expecting them to encounter ideas that they don't know how to handle, ideas that are new and scary and difficult. They might be great writers with things that they are comfortable with, but once you challenge them? The whole thing becomes a hot mess. This doesn't mean that they are bad writers--it means that they are out of their intellectual depth. If you teach them the ideas, then the writing can catch up. But the writing has to catch up to their thinking--the writing isn't a stand-alone thing.

This strikes me as exactly right, and it explains how it is that an obviously smart student--someone I've emailed and chatted with during office hours--can turn in a 5-page paper with a 2-page introduction, no thesis, and prose so convoluted that, if she hadn't already outlined her ideas to me, I'd have no idea what she was trying to say. Sometimes student writing regresses because the kinds of writing a particular student has mastered don't feel adequate to the more complex ideas, longer forms, or different authorial personae she's trying on. The fact that a student "can't express herself clearly" doesn't mean that she can't write a coherent sentence. It may mean only that she doesn't have a coherent way of articulating the particular issue she's wrestling with.

But it's not true only of English majors. Although I tend to assume that my majors are capable of improving, sometimes very quickly, when stylistic and grammatical problems are pointed out to them, I haven't always been as generous or as hopeful about my non-majors. But my freshman comp class this semester has been going surprisingly well, and Dr. Crazy's analysis has, I think, given me the patience to make it even better.

As I've mentioned, I'm teaching freshman composition this semester for the first time in three semesters, and it's my first "regular" (non-Honors) comp class in more than three years. Although I've always felt that the work I do in comp classes is important, and I've always derived certain satisfactions from teaching them, I'd be lying if I said that I loved doing it. Comp is the only course I teach where I've ever felt my students didn't have a basic respect for me and my expertise. Sure, I always had some good kids, and I never had a Class From Hell or anything, but in each there was always a big enough handful of students who were totally checked out to sour my entire experience: kids who showed up late, who didn't bother to turn in their papers, who disrupted class in minor but persistent ways, and who ultimately didn't care if they failed the course.

This semester is totally different. I might have gotten lucky, or the caliber of our incoming students might really have improved as much as our PR office claims, but whatever the reason, my students are all good, hard-working kids whose occasional complaints or protests are always playful and good-humored. They're also, on average, better writers than I've often had. . . but this isn't to say that they're all equivalently good, or that reading the first drafts for their first assignment wasn't a deeply painful experience. Because it was.

But I started noticing that all was not always as bad as it seemed: that kid whose introduction was such a fucking nightmare that I thought maybe he'd slipped between the cracks and really belonged in a remedial class? had actually written a lucid, well-organized, and even rather well-phrased second paragraph. The other kid whose essay was a mass of sentence fragments? Was able to fix 95% of them on her own, after the problem was pointed out to her. Reading their first drafts was awful. But their final drafts were pretty good--and I just read through the first drafts for their second assignment, and they're dramatically better, maybe because it's a very different kind of assignment.

None of this is to say I'm sorry it'll be a few semesters until I teach comp again. But I think I'll be a better teacher of composition, and of writing in all my classes, if I can just remember that students who write badly aren't necessarily bad writers.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

I totally saw this in myself during law school - when I was tackling entirely new stuff and learning to think a new way, my writing went all to shit. It was reassuring to realize it wasn't that I was losing my marbles or anything!

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Good point. Joseph Williams discusses it in his excellent little book on Style: bad writing is often produced by writers who are working through their ideas, and by those who haven't yet picked up the conventions of a new genre (such as legal writing).

Though sometimes it's deliberate: Joe has some great examples of product recall notices and other such texts that appear to have been written to confuse the reader.

Anonymous said...

Or, as I recently saw in a first draft of a master's thesis, sometimes just getting everything out of one's head and onto the page can result in horrendous writing. And the student knew it was bad and felt like he'd have to start all over again. But after we talked about was to analyze what he'd written and to reorganize and restructure it, he went on to write a brilliant second draft. I think his submitted thesis will be one of the best I've seen in a long time.

Flavia said...


The "conventions of the genre" accounts for a lot of it in the case of freshmen, I think--they're trying to write in what they dimly apprehend to be a "formal" or "academic" style, and wind up with crazy tortuous passive constructions, lots of abstract nouns, and words whose meaning they only partly apprehend (but that seem smarter than the simple words that would serve just fine).

I was struck, in reading this new round of first drafts, by how many of my freshmen (four? five?) used the word "whom." All of them used it incorrectly, but I'm pretty sure I've never even seen any freshmen attempting it before. It's sweet in a way--as an indication that they're interested in learning its usage.

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeff said...

(Ack! Hit "return" too soon.)

It's definitely not an attempt to imitate business writing, the students aren't misreading the tone and diction of academic writing, because they've rarely been exposed to it much scholarship that point, and there are few models for it on TV, in the movies, or otherwise in the culture--yet students continue to trot out certain stylistic flourishes and misbegotten "whoms" because they think that's what their profs expect. I've never been clear about why.

Flavia said...


My best explanation is that they're encountering formal, academic or academic-ish prose here and there (in textbooks, articles assigned for class), but that it's so unlike the way they write that they're not really paying careful attention to the specifics of how that kind of prose works (and they're often not especially close readers). So students remember the effect of academic prose rather than its mechanics, and since their impression is that academic writing involves long sentences and a voice of Great Authority, they're just scrambling around trying to cobble together something that approximates what they think they read.

It's like how very badly dialects and accents used to be done on stage & film: the actors weren't really going for authenticity, but for an impressionistic rendering of what those folks sounded like to their ears.

(But it's not helped by the literalistic way that young people often take high school writing prescriptives: it takes me forever to explain to my students, first, the reason why their high school teachers told them never to use "I" (and what's good and sensible about that rule), and then how they can use "I" in a limited way, and why that's actually much better than adopting a vague and all-knowing voice of certitude and truth.)

Canuck Down South said...

This post--and Dr. Crazy's discussion a few weeks ago--is very interesting to me, partially because in the freshman comp program in which I teach we (the instructors) are told to expect students' writing to break down stylistically, grammatically, etc. as they start working through more complex ideas. It's pretty much standard, and I'd say it happens to half my class in any given term around the midterm mark, after which they start to pull it back together--and, I should note, it's usually the hardest-working students who have this happen. I find it really helps at that point to have a meeting with a student in which I point out that often a breakdown in writing is reflection of how hard that student has been thinking, which usually helps to give the student the tools (and occasionally the confidence) to improve.

It's very interesting to me to read your and Dr. Crazy's posts, because I had assumed this was a standard comp/teaching writing phenomenon, which it sounds like it is, but not always an acknowledged one. Perhaps the particular comp syllabus I teach highlights it, or maybe I should give the directors of the writing program I work in a lot more credit, as they make a point of talking about this when they train first-time teachers.

Sara Webb-Sunderhaus said...

Canuck, the fact that writers regress as they move into more challenging rhetorical tasks is well-established in scholarship of rhetoric and composition. Believe me when I say any rhet/comp program worth its salt makes sure its new instructors understand this--it's not just your program, though I'm glad it does so! :) Bartholomae, Bizzell, and Bazerman are just a few of the heavy hitters who wrote about this phenomenon many years ago.

Flavia said...

Canuck & Sarah:

Neither I nor Dr. Crazy is trained in rhet/comp (and I at least have received relatively little training in the teaching of writing), which is probably what accounts for our reactions. Old news to you, perhaps--but as long as people in writing-intensive disciplines aren't trained in writing pedagogy and theory, there's going to be a mismatch between our understanding of student writing and what they're actually doing.

Dr. Crazy said...

Coming to this way late, but thanks for the shout-out, Flavia.

For what it's worth, I did have fairly decent training in the teaching of comp in my MA program (less so in my PhD program) and so yes, in that training we talked about regression and the scholarship on it. But I'm one person in a department where there are at least 50 different instructors (including adjuncts and tenure-line) teaching writing, some of whom got their PhDs *before composition was an established field of study*, and very few of whom have their degrees in rhetoric and composition or see the teaching of writing as anything other than "service" teaching (which means they aren't motivated to read up on the scholarship). So while *I* might get that this is something that happens to student writing, and while *I* might communicate that to my students, I wouldn't say that my department as a whole necessarily has gotten the memo about this, and it leads to a lot of student-bashing.

Canuck Down South said...

I should clarify--I'm not in a comp/rhetoric program, I'm just required to teach freshman as a grad student, and there's a course anyone who teaches comp at my university has to take before starting to teach (with new lecturers the course is a week in the late summer). Most of the course is, I thought, pretty useless--but I'm re-evaluating some of that in light of Flavia's and Dr. Crazy's comments--it appears that this program does at least tell us a few useful things, even though it's taught by the Writing Program's directors, who are actually not trained in comp.

Perhaps the conflation of comp and rhetoric is a modern, American phenomenon? I did my undergraduate work at a department in Canada that included a rhetoric track for both undergrad and grad students, but I got the impression that that was more of a holdover from the time when "rhetoric" meant something like "philology" (lots of history of language courses), than composition. Or is rhetoric being re-imagined as composition for those few useful programs that specialize in it.