Monday, March 04, 2013


Every semester I get one or two English majors who are eager, energetic, widely-read. . . but don't know what the hell they're doing. These are often students who are a few years older than their peers, or who have taken time off, or bounced around to a bunch of different schools--but whatever their background, they come across as semi-autodidacts: they've got a whole lot of knowledge in their heads without much framework or context (historical, theoretical, disciplinary). And they can't write to save their lives.

Managed right, they're usually a pleasure in the classroom: they sometimes pipe up from left field or don't take redirection well (they really want to show off their knowledge of Greek mythology, say), but in my experience they're just so excited to be in college or in graduate classes that they're as respectful as they are eager.

The challenge comes with their written work. The kind of student I'm talking about writes shockingly badly, especially relative to the breadth of their reading and the enthusiasm they have for learning. Sometimes they are literally the worst writers in their classes--worse than some sullen, lackadaisacal, checked-out kid who never speaks, never seems to do the reading, and doesn't show up half the time.

And so they require a lot of work: not just the time spent reading their revisions or drafts or meeting with them one-on-one, but also the intellectual and emotional labor that goes into giving advice that's simultaneously hard-hitting (impressing on the student how much work he still has to do) and encouraging (showing him how much I believe in his potential and want to help him succeed).

When they rise to the occasion, it's kind of amazing: I have students whom I beat up on, hard, one assignment after another, and they do every goddamn revision, come to every meeting, and keep showing up undaunted for class. I almost can't believe how indomitable some of them are. It's clear that they've got what it takes to succeed--if not in my class, then in some other class a semester or two down the line. I love those kids.

But some of my semi-autodidacts Do Not Take Correction Well. They refuse to revise, even when given plenty of time and support, and even when they know that the paper grade will cripple their course grade. Instead, they want to tell me (over and over) how successful they were at their previous college, or how they've "always been" A students. They just shut down, resisting the idea that they still have things to learn.

And you know, that's their choice. But I have to admit those kids get to me. For one thing, it sucks whenever a student goes from being smiley and participatory to being glum and resentful--and it especially sucks when I know it's because, on some level, I've made them feel bad about themselves. But at the same time, they make me angry: their thin skin, their stupidly fragile self-esteem, and their unwillingness to accept the help I feel I'm bending over backwards to give.

They're only a tiny minority of my students. But they seem to have such potential. I hate that they're not making more of it--and I hate feeling that I've snuffed out the spark of their fire for learning, or whateverthefuck.


nicoleandmaggie said...

I was trained to write one way (by a history phd I had in high school, with an outline and lots of transitions). Different professors (and different disciplines) loved or hated my writing.

In a writing conference with my (gen-ed) opera professor (who had given me what he admitted was an undeserved D), we realized that I wrote the way many historians view the world-- as a continuous flowing interconnected story. He wanted clean cut stanzas. He preferred my paper *before* I went through and added transitions, and was able to see the outline after I took them away.

In my current field, we don't use adjectives or adverbs. That was a new thing to learn as well.

This is a long way of saying that a way to get through to these students may be to explain that it is an important skill to learn to write for different audiences. They write one way, you want them to write a different way. They may still prefer their way, but being able to write for different audiences is itself a skill.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Students who are 18-25 years old right now are all a part of that self-esteem generation. You know, the ones who all got trophies for participating and who have been groomed and coddled with their self-esteem building exercises. I think that sometimes those kids need to be taken down a peg. I know that sounds terrible. But for god's sake -- it is not good enough to just show up. You don't get an A for merely completing a task. But that's what they are used to. I get several of those kinds of students every semester, and it makes me crazy that I feel like I am the only one who upholds standards.

But you know, most of those students end up thanking me for holding them to higher standards than just showing up. I bet they thank you, too. Even if they don't do it in the semester they have you for class, I bet they thank you down the line (in their heads or whatever) for making them try harder.

I just don't believe that an A should be easy to get. And the students who have potential need and deserve that challenge. Life only continues to get harder for me, so I imagine that it's kind of similar for other people too. One of my 61-year-old colleagues said today that she was at that point in the semester where she was really stressed out. I said, "it doesn't get better?" And she laughed and said, "No, it doesn't."

Maybe that stress is just symptomatic of being at a 4/4. But I would argue that life does get more stressful beyond college, no matter what job you have. Students who don't know how to try harder are going to be screwed when real life hits them. You're doing them a favor by knocking their blocks off. More people should uphold high standards!

Flavia said...


I don't think that's exactly what's going on with this particular subset of students--who sometimes have fundamental problems with sentence- and paragraph-level issues--but you're right that different disciplines and even different assignments within the same discipline can call for totally different approaches; it's also true that students who can write perfectly good sentences and paragraphs in one context get twisted in knots when they try to write sentences that involve more complex (or just different kinds of) analysis. I try to remember that, but I'm not always successful.


I don't think of these students as being entitled, nor do they give the impression of being coddled or petted in other ways.

The fragility and self-esteem issues here actually seem to come from not being entitled, or having a lot of cultural or traditional educational capital: they're proud of, but also proportionately anxious about, whatever they've managed to achieve or learn on their own, perhaps without much support from family or friends. So my concern is about being perceived to be (or getting written off as) just one more person who doesn't believe in them.

Obviously, there are more and less resilient students from all classes and backgrounds, and some of the same issues of motivation apply regardless of what students one teaches (at my Ivy grad institution, I also fretted about how hard it was to know which students needed more praise and reassurance to leaven even minor criticisms, and which could take a more brutal assessment with perfectly good cheer--and turn right around and assimilate that information productively). But telling a student who's had a chequered path to get to college, and who could genuinely drop out, that she isn't as smart as she thinks she is has different implications than saying the same thing to a kid who's been petted all her life and whose parents are footing the bill.

Comrade Physioprof said...

My experience has been that if you haven't learned to write a decent sentence by the time you are in your twenties, you are never gonna become a good writer. The other aspects of writing can be learned at any time, but writing a decent sentence seems to be subject to a "critical period" in adolescence.

And fucke these students if they insist on acting like assholes who refuse to try to learn.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I'm not saying that's what is going on. I'm saying if you think they're turning off because their concepts of self and feelings are hurt, that "different" is a good way to insinuate better skills into them. Things can be different without being wrong, and once they've mastered different they have a skill-set that enables them to decide which is better themselves.

FLG said...

Are most of these student's male? I ask because the description would have applied to me years ago, and I've seen it manifest similarly in other male students over the years.

On one hand, I loved learning things. On the other, I hated structure. I'm still not quite clear about the relationship in my head, but I equated formal structure with authority. I bristled at formal frameworks, the inherent power dynamic of the professor-student relationship (although I wanted to learn what the professor knew).

I, in fact, had a very negative reaction to admonition about a lack of structure in my writing or thinking coming from a Ivy League credentialed professor. To be completely honest, it was just an ego thing that I got over. I'm certain even the ones that seem to react negatively will eventually take your counsel very seriously once they get their shit together.

QueSera said...

I think that your follow-up comment to Fie really gets at what I was thinking about the students. If you have been successful and the "smart" one all your life, it is difficult to learn that you may have a limit. This reminds me of Carol Dweck's book MindSet. The students need to learn a growth mindset in order to realize that good learners and smart people have to work hard in order to succeed and learn more. Just a thought...

Flavia said...


You may be right that what you suggest is a more effective strategy. To the extent that I've thought about it, I suppose I have assumed that emphasizing how transferable are the skills I'm teaching them--that they don't just apply to writing a paper about a Shakespeare play, or a sonnet, or for an English class--is a more effective motivational strategy than emphasizing the particularity or contingency of what I'm asking of them. But you may be right that that's a better way of getting around some of the pride issues that FLG also raises.

FLG: the semi-autodidacts are not always male. But the resistors among them are, you're right, extremely disproportionately male. I'm sure there's an age and gender component to this kind of resistance (in my experience, other kinds of resisting students--those of a more traditional college age--do not display this stark gender divergence).

Dr. Koshary said...

Boy, do I hear all of this! I have several semi-autodidacts among my students now, and I'm a wee bit anxious to see what they do on their next assignment, after they received some harsh but constructive criticism from me about exactly what you point out, Flavia: their writing is a troublesome tangle of bad habits, even when their thinking seems to be on target.

It's simultaneously comforting and not, to know that professors still grapple with this after years of experience.

moria said...

This was really affirming, because I have such a student this term, neither my first nor my worst such case, but frustrating all the same. And while I'm good at talking myself down, it's really easy to internalize the notion that it's somehow my fault.

This is the part that kills me: They just shut down, resisting the idea that they still have things to learn. Bingo. It makes me angrier and sadder than it should – because as you say, it's their choice. But I'm so tempted to say, 'If you think you're finished, then why are you still here?'

Jeff said...

Some of those students will curse you (both individually and, in their eternal rants against academia, metonymically) for scheming to melt their unique snowflakitude, but a few of them will thank you.

Still, it's an understandable frustration on your part. Some students are naturals, others are palpably hopeless, but those smart ones with potential who just need a little self-imposed discipline...gaaah. They always made me waver between marveling at the power I had to help shape a mind and wondering whether I had any such power at all.

Natori Moore said...

"scheming to melt their unique snowflakitude" that's got to be the most apt phrase I've heard in months well done

Anonymous said...

The various ProfBlogs (F&F, Dr.Crazy,QuodShe..)that I have come across recently have been very helpful to me. I appreciate these insights to the profession as I am wrestling whether to jump in myself.

This particular post resonated with here is my meager comment. First off, I am in total agreement with FLG. I too would have counted myself in this group a few years ago. The first paragraph in the post fit me perfectly. I had no idea there was a term for it though. This is an ego thing and some will respond well and some won't. I too still struggle a bit with structure issues despite obtaining the BA in English.

I can fix these issues now (after a revision or three) only thanks to an AWESOME prof. that sat me down and said to me.."did you even fucking proofread this?!?!" She may not have said it in quite that way...but that's the way my inner narrator heard it. It was my Senior Seminar...and she was dead right. I had a bit of a "moment" where I said to myself 'She is ABSOLUTELY right'...

Luckily I was able to pull my egotistical head out of my ass and made real improvements in my writing ability (at least with essays and papers). In my case it was never an issue where I felt I DESERVED an A+, I was never quite that bad. A lot of the issue was I just couldn't recognize my sorry ass writing...and the Prof. should just be able to infer my wonderful insights about this work. Right? I mean, RIGHT?!?

Some of the problem for me (in addition to not taking the paper or the revision process seriously) was as you mentioned, I bounced around to several different schools and was in and out so often (mostly because of finances) that I don't think I spent enough uninterrupted time in a school or with any one instructor to give me the solid foundation in writing that I needed. I could talk your ear off about a work..but sit down and give it form and structure?? Ummm, no.

One thing that helped me was during the whole "proofread" talk was that she explained how SHE revised and revised and revised. Knowing that SHE had to work too...helped me get past the "Well shit it's just a five page paper I should be able to knock it out quickly and in one sweep" mentality.