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.