Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College

Three behaviors have over the course of about 40 years come to constitute a significant percentage of who I am—writing, teaching, and cycling.

Of those three, I have received the most formal education in teaching, completing all three of my degrees (BA, MEd, EdD) in education; in many ways, I am self-taught as a writer and a cyclist even though I would argue that I have developed a level of expertise in all three that are comparable.

Recently, I bought my first gravel bicycle and have been making the small but noticeable transition to gravel riding that has forced me to experiment with decades of cycling knowledge built on road and mountain bicycling in order to ride gravel at a level comparable to road cycling (my first and deepest cycling love).

This, I think, is at the core of all of my personas as writer, teacher, and cycling—behaviors that are all journeys and not aspects of my life that I can (or should) finish.

Even though, as I noted above, teaching is my primary career and what I have the most education in, I am perpetually learning to teach; and I count on my students to guide me along that path.

My teacher Self is grounded and guided by critical pedagogy; Paulo Freire‘s concepts of the teacher/student and student/teacher have always resonated with me since I started as a tinkerer in my first days as a high school English teacher and continue to depend on my students by inquiring at regular intervals “Is this working?” and “What can I do better?”

While the primary focus of all my teaching is the student, of all the content I teach, I remain most enamored with and frustrated by teaching writing.

I have now spent about equal amounts of time teaching high school students and first-year college student to write.

During the pandemic, I have also shifted one of my assignments slightly (from their final portfolio to their final essay)—requiring first-year writing students to submit as their final essay a reflection on what they have learned as writers as well as what they think they need to continue to address moving forward in their college careers.

I have read the first submissions of those reflections (and will blog about those in a week or so), but I also use the last class session to brainstorm on what worked for students in the seminars and what I can do differently (in this case, for spring 2021).

Several students during the brainstorming session requested that I provide some of the key elements of the course—those addressing their transition from high school writing to college writing—earlier.

One of the foundational lessons I learned about teaching, during my years as a high school English teacher, was the need to reduce upfront teacher-led instruction and replace that with students producing authentic artifacts of learning (essays, for example) combined with direct instruction grounded in their writing after the first submission of their work.

The feedback I received this fall suggests I have moderated too far, and thus, I am including below the first draft of a checklist I will provide students on the first day of class this spring, encouraging them to keep this throughout the semester as a focal point as they revisit these lessons and come to understand them better.

Here, then, is my Checklist: Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College:

Writing Process and Drafting

  • Writing a couple quick drafts the night before an essay is due is not genuinely engaging in the drafting process, and likely will not be effective in college (even if you received high grades in high school for this practice). Last-minute essay writing is behaving as a student (dutifully preparing an assignment as the teacher as required), and not as a writer or scholar.
  • Drafting from an approved, direct thesis (common in high school) may be a less effective writing strategy than other drafting approaches, such as the following: (1) “vomit” drafting (free writing as much as you can to create text you can reorganize and revise) or (2) discovery drafting (writing with a general idea of your topic and focus, but allowing yourself to discover and evolve your topic and focus). One commitment to the drafting process that may be different than when in high school is making the decision to abandon large sections of drafting, or even entire essays. Starting over after a discovery draft is not wasting a draft, but coming to see that writing is a way to better understand even if the text you created is not directly included in the submitted draft.
  • Committing to several days for drafting is necessary, and establishing a routine for revising that focuses on one revision strategy at a time (diction and tone, paragraphing, etc.) is often effective.
  • Reading and using as models published academic and scholarly essays along with public and creative nonfiction essays increases your toolbox as a writer. The symbiotic relationship between reading and writing should become more purposeful during college—notably that the reading and writing are for you and your learning, and not simply to complete an assignment.

Essay Writing

  • A five-paragraph essay with a one-paragraph introduction (and direct thesis), three body paragraphs, and a one-paragraph conclusion that restates the introduction is inadequate in college; the form is simplistic thinking (most topics do not have only 3 points) and writing, and guarantees you will under-develop your discussion. The essay form is far more complex that a template, and your thinking as a college student needs also to rise above reducing all arguments and explanations to a direct statement (thesis) supported by three points.
  • Write to a clear audience (not your teacher or professor), recognizing that academic writing often has a well-informed (expert), specialized audience and that a public audience can range from being poorly informed or misinformed to being highly experienced and knowledgeable (public writing, then, may require you to navigate a much more complex audience than your academic writing).
  • Avoid overstatements, especially in the first sentences of the essay and in the last few sentences. Overstatements include “since the beginning of time” (or suggesting long periods of time such as “throughout history”), “many/most people argue/debate,” and “[topic x] is important [or unique or a hot topic].” See this brilliant parody from The OnionSince The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation.
  • Your word choice (diction) creates the tone of your essay; many scholarly/academic topics are serious so take great care that your diction/tone matches the seriousness of your topic. The relationship between your tone and your topic impacts your credibility as a writer. Focus on vivid, active, concrete verbs (instead of forms of “get” and “be”), and take care not to write as you talk, avoiding slang and flippant phrases when examining a serious topic.
  • Always prefer active, vivid, and specific/concrete over vague or general. “Anger” instead of “how he felt”; for example: “John was upset that he couldn’t control his anger” is more effective than “John was upset that he couldn’t control how he felt.”
  • Rethink the essay form and paragraphing not as a set number of sentences but as important and purposeful parts of engaging your reader/audience while establishing your credibility. Your essays should have a multiple-paragraph opening the engages and focuses your reader by being specific and vivid, several body paragraphs with purposeful paragraph lengths (sentence and paragraph length variety are effective), and a multiple-paragraph closing that leaves the reader with specific and vivid language that parallels the opening (framing) but doesn’t simply repeat your initial thoughts.
  • Learn to use the tools available in Word (or other word processors): formatting using menus (and not simply inserting spaces, returns, and tabs to manipulate text), running your essay through the grammar and spell check (be careful not to leave your essay with the colored underlinings when submitting an assignment), and saving your text files purposefully (include your last name and assignment type in the file name) and in an organized way on your computer system (making sure you have a back-up process for all files).
  • Most academic essay writing is built from claims, evidence, and elaboration; however, the types of evidence required varies a great deal in writing among the many disciplines of the academy (history, sociology, economics, physics, etc.). For example, direct quotes are often necessary as evidence when writing a text-based analysis (analyzing a poem or an essay in philosophy), but many disciplines (social sciences and hard sciences) expect evidence that is data or paraphrasing/synthesis of concepts and conclusions from multiple sources at a time (synthesis). When writing a text analysis, quotes are necessary, but your own claims and elaboration should be the majority of the essay, and take great care to integrate quotes with your own words (avoid stand-alone sentences that are quotes only and be careful to limit block quoting).; when writing about topics (not specific texts) or making arguments, you should limit quoting.
  • Academic citation (MLA, APA, etc.) is different among the disciplines (you may not use MLA again after entering college, for example), and expectations for high-quality sources also vary among disciplines. Some fields such as literature and history require older sources, yet social (sociology, psychology, education) and hard (physics, biology, chemistry) sciences tend to prefer only peer-reviewed journal articles from within 5-10 years. Across most of academia, however, journal articles and peer-reviewed publications are preferred to books and public writing.
  • Text formatting impacts your credibility as a writer; set your font preferences to one standard font and size (Times New Roman, 12 pt.) and maintain that formatting throughout a document (only using bold or italics as appropriate for subheads or emphasis), including headers/footers.
  • Always submit essays with vivid and specific titles and your name where required on the document itself.

Another aspect of my class that requires students to thing and behave differently is that I do not grade assignments even though I do assign grades for the course (per university requirements)—what I have characterized as de-grading and delaying grades.

On the last day of class, we discussed what would eventually shape their course grades, and below is something I share to help think about grades assigned in a class where assignments are not graded.

When I think about final grades in a writing-intensive course, here are some guiding principles:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

This spring, with the guidance of my fall students, I am going to re-think and experiment with some of my core beliefs as a teacher—when to offer direct instruction and how to navigate the tension between my de-graded courses and the reality of grades in formal schooling.

Recommended

Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller

Being White Is a Handout

My 4.5 year journey as an undergraduate and the first five years teaching high school English were spent mostly in the Reagan era.

While this was many decades before terminology such as “fake news” or “post-truth,” I literally lived during those years a painful and now embarrassing conversion from white denial and ignorance (believing in reverse discrimination, for example) to racial awareness and seeking a life dedicated to racial equity grounded in my own awareness of white privilege.

I had been raised in racism and white denial that pervaded my home and community so when I returned to my hometown high school to teach, I felt compelled to help my students make a similar conversion as mine but not have to endure the stress of experiencing that growth as late as I did.

Reagan in part depended on bogus American Myths (such as bootstrapping and a rising tide lifting all boats) and thinly veiled racist stereotypes, such as the infamous welfare queen myth evoked by Reagan and Republicans with great effect.

No one called this fake news then, but I invited my students to investigate and interrogate these overstated and unfounded claims as we examined race through nonfiction in the first quarter of my American literature course.

That unit began with canonical American thinkers—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller—contextualized with Howard Zinn’s confrontation of the Christopher Columbus myth of discovering America. From there, we moved to race in the U.S. by reading and discussing texts by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Booker T. Washington in order to emphasize the diversity of thought among Black leaders throughout the early and mid-twentieth century.

The culmination of the unit was anchored by a consideration of the life of Gandhi (linked to Thoreau and King).

What was my agenda in this unit?

The writing goal was to explore nonfiction writing, specifically argumentation. But I also asked my students to begin to form their beliefs about the world based on credible evidence and not cultural myths and stereotypes.

One brief activity I used, and continue to use, is to have students brainstorm what percentage of the U.S. they believed to be classified as white before asking them to identify what percentage of the world was classified as white.

In the 1980s, students living in rural upstate South Carolina tended to wildly miss these statistics in their guesses; then, about 70% of the U.S. was white, with about 12% constituting Black Americans. The world statistic really forced them to rethink race, and whiteness, since I had found a chart that portrayed about 1 in 10 people in the world being white.

These statistics created a great deal of disorientation for students even as I helped them recognize that about 4-5 out of 10 people in the world were Chinese or Indian (a context they had never considered).

One of the most memorable moments of these lessons over the years was a Black student who grew livid with me, calling me racist, because she entirely rejected that only 12% of the U.S. was Black.

Her anger was grounded in a similar experience I was highlighting for students in general; for many people, the U.S. looked then very white ( a gaze that allows people not to see that the world is not as white), but this Black student believed that the U.S. was fare more Black than it was because she was hyper-focused on SC, where 25-30% of the citizens were Black (significantly disproportionate to the entire country).

The anger and disorientation grew for my students as I asked them to research data on welfare; they discovered that the average person on welfare was white and that people on welfare tended to have fewer children than the general population—all of which contradicted the myths they had lived by, heard from their parents, and witnessed in the political propaganda of the Reagan era.

These teaching experiences with mostly rural white and Black students very much like me are now about three decades behind me, but I think about this teaching often—and it is discouraging.

It is discouraging because I watched and listened as Lindsey Graham and others refused to extend jobless benefits during the pandemic because he framed that as a handout, a disincentive for working.

It is discouraging because I am watching the move to forgive student loans begin to crumble against a similar mantra about fairness and the usual “handout” rhetoric.

There are two ways that people (mostly white) need to investigate the handout myth, just as my students confronted race and racism in the 1980s.

First, the arguments against student debt relief are grounded in misinformation and racism in similar ways that arguments against welfare have been since Reagan (and including the Bill Clinton era).

Just as antagonism against welfare by white people was rooted in false perceptions that it was a handout to Black people with lots of children, the specter of student loan relief being a handout to Black people cannot be ignored in white rhetoric against that relief:

According to the Department of Education, Black college graduates have nearly twice as much student loan debt as the typical white grad. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the typical Black borrower owes 114 percent of their original student loan debt 12 years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. White students, on the other hand, usually owe 47 percent of their original debt.

Not only is this crisis exacerbated by higher Black unemploymentwage disparities and the racial wealth gap, but loan companies charge Black students higher interest rates. So, Black grads have less money before they attend college; earn less money after college and have to pay back loans at higher interest rates.

Second, as Harriot adds, “There’s no such thing as a ‘government handout.'”

Student debt relief would address a failure of public funding, a lack of political will that decides how tax money is spent.

There is no shortage of money in the U.S. for social programs such as fully publicly funding K-16 education for all, but there is a lack of political will to allocate money for the common good as opposed, for example, more military spending or militarizing the police forces across the country.

Allocated tax money is not a handout since it is the pooled money of all Americans that then must be designated in ways that serve those Americans.

A final point that cannot be emphasized enough, however, is that those most enraged by anything they deem as a “handout” are mostly White conservatives who like my students before our lessons on race and racism have failed to interrogate the truth about their white privilege: Being white is a handout.

The white handout looks like this:

And these:

Closing the Race Gap
black unemployment
Black unemployment is significantly higher than white unemployment regardless of educational attainment | Economic Policy Institute
rich black poor white prison
Poor white kids are less likely to go to prison than rich black kids
racial-wealth-gap
The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap

The anti-handout beliefs and rhetoric from white Americans is a painful paradox exposing the lack of awareness and active denial among white people.

Privilege is an unearned advantage, starkly displayed in the data above. But for many white Americans that handout of being white is invisible since they cannot experience life in any way other than white.

White privilege, the handout, is no guarantee of success or a perfect shield against pain and suffering (or even inequity), but struggling while white is almost always less severe than struggling while Black.

This discussion here, however, is not white bashing; I understand that white people have not asked for that advantage, but I also recognize that a great deal of white anger is grounded in an unexamined fear of losing the handout, of having to live in a world of racial equity—ultimately a fear of achieving the meritocracy many whites falsely believe exists.

If in fact handouts erode people’s work ethic, the ultimate paradox is that for the white people who believe that their white privilege, that handout, must be eradicated.

I, again, think about the hard lessons my white and Black students wrestled with in rural SC throughout the 1980s and 1990s; they often grew into smarter and kinder people. They always gave me hope.

That hope is weakening for me however under the weight of 70-plus million Americans choosing the myths, the lies, and refusing to investigate the evidence.

If handouts aren’t good or fair for America, then it is well past time to end the greatest handout of all, white privilege.

Looking Back: On Raising the Academic Quality of Student Writing

My first-year writing seminars are grounded in two concepts—workshop structure (multiple drafts of essays combined with conferencing over long periods of time) and portfolio assessment (a portfolio of all course work is submitted for the final exam).

In that final portfolio, students submit final versions of all four essays, rank those essays in order of quality according to them, and submit a reflection that details the key lessons they have learned about writing as well as a few areas they need to continue improving.

This pandemic semester has added a significant and noticeable layer of stress to first-semester first-year students so I have adjusted the final weeks of the seminars this fall, ending in just a few days. One change has been to replace the usual Essay 4 assignment (an open assignment in which students submit a proposal for the type of essay and topic before submitting a first full draft) with the end-of-course reflection usually required in the final portfolio.

In class yesterday, we began brainstorming what key lessons my students have learned and what they see as areas still needing improvement. Over this past weekend, as well, I sent out an email that framed the organization of the semester, outlining how the essay assignments have been scaffolded in order to prepare these students to be academic writers (student writers) in the remainder of their college experience.

Included in those goals, I explain to them, is seeking ways to increase their agency as students/writers and their academic authority in courses when they are required to submit essays that will be graded (again, I do not grade assignments in my courses) and when students will not be allowed to revise (in effect, having to be their own editors before turning in any essay).

Here is the structure and scaffolding of essay assignments for first-year seminars, focusing on essay types, audience, and the role of the writer:

Essay 1: A personal narrative, what some people would call “creative nonfiction,” and the audience is the general public.

Essay 2: A public essay written for an online platform (using hyperlinks as citation); that audience is also a general public, but for some of the students (depending on topics) that is also a specialized public audience (readers who share interest in or experience with the topic, such as gaming systems).

Essay 3: A scholarly/academic essay in which the students are writing to an academic audience (readers/experts with high-quality knowledge of the topic). This is often what students will be asked to write throughout college, especially when required to cite formally (APA, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.).

Throughout the drafting of these three essays, we have focused on some common strategies across essay writing: crafting engaging and vivid openings and closings, matching diction and tone with the essay topic and intended impact on the audience, purposeful paragraphing and sentence formation, and nuanced approaches to choosing and including appropriate and effective evidence (in terms of disciplinary conventions for citation).

For students, even with the scaffolding and direct instruction (including two very effective textbooks—Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 12th Edition, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, John Warner), writing an academic and formally cited essay was a significant challenge.

Since several students are still working on their first revised draft of the academic essay and since one of the foundational goals of our first-year writing seminars is students demonstrating proper citation (and the harsher negative goal, not plagiarizing), I included in my weekend email some tips for raising the academic/scholarly quality of their writing (especially as that applies to APA style guidelines).

One of the most significant hurdles for first-year students moving from primarily writing in English courses, often writing text-based analysis and conforming to MLA style and citation, is how to integrate evidence (sources).

For many students, providing proof in an essay for school is always including quotes, but we examine that quoting as evidence is primarily a convention of text-based writing (analyzing a poem or an essay in philosophy or the writings of a past president) common in the humanities. Evidence in the hard and social sciences, however, often includes incorporating a much more nuanced and complex body of research findings, challenging students to synthesis data and conclusions from multiple sources (and rarely quoting).

Quoting as evidence tends to be incorporating one source at a time while many disciplines synthesize multiple sources to give a sense of a body of research.

Here, then, are the strategies I provided in my weekend email for raising the academic/scholarly quality of their writing:

  • In academic writing, avoid writing like you talk (as contrasted with conversational language appropriate in creative nonfiction and public writing) and a flippant/light tone about serious topics. Do not say your topic is a “hot topic” or use “well” as a sentence starter, for example.
  • Focus your discussion on your topic and not your sources. Do not frame your claims around your source: “Johnson (2014) conducted research on grade retention and found that grade retention correlates with dropping out of high school, but not with higher achievement.” Instead address the content of your sources: “Grade retention correlates with dropping out of high school, but not with higher achievement” (Johnson, 2014; Van Pelt, 2017).”
  • Keep your claims at a scholarly/academic level. Stating that something has “been debated for decades” or “recently this has become a controversy” is not a scholarly or academic purpose for examining a topic; scholars typically do not consider (or care) if or not something is a debate or controversial. Related, avoid in academic/scholarly writing making claims of “throughout history” or “has recently become a debate/controversial” because these both are overly simplistic claims that make you look not credible or nuanced in understanding complex topics.

As the semester is winding down (or this year, grinding over us), I left my students with two important reminders.

First, no one learns to write spontaneously, and certainly first-year college students cannot attain advanced academic skills in a three-month semester. I cautioned them to be patient with themselves and see their learning to write well as a journey.

Second, and connected, I stressed that they should find a few key areas of their writing to address at a time; trying to revise and edit everything in any essay draft is likely counter-productive for students. I suggested doing read-throughs of drafts for one revision element at a time (and related to the issues they are identifying in their final essay of the semester).

In-school academic essay writing becomes more specialized and nuanced as students move through undergraduate and possibly into graduate education. First-year writing is the smallest of steps so we must be sure we are both demanding and encouraging—a nearly impossible goal to achieve as teachers of writing.

Confronting the Tension between Being a Student and a Writer

Titian: Sisyphus
Titian: Sisyphus
Sisyphus, oil on canvas by Titian, 1548–49; in the Prado Museum, Madrid.
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd./Alamy

I worry about my students.

I worry, I think, well past the line of being too demanding in the same way being a parent can (will?) become overbearing.

Good intentions and so-called tough love are not valid justifications, I recognize, but there is a powerful paradox to being the sort of kind and attentive teacher I want to be and the inherent flaws in believing that learning comes directly from my purposeful teaching and high demands.

After 37 years of teaching—and primarily focusing throughout my career on teaching students to write—I have witnessed that one of the greatest tensions of formal education is the contradiction of being a student versus being a writer.

That recognition is grounded in my own experiences; I entered K-12 teaching, my doctoral program, and my current career in higher education all as a writer first.

My primary adult Self has always been Writer, but being a writer has remained secondary to my status as either student or teacher/professor-and-scholar.

The tension between being a student and a writer has been vividly displayed for me during my more recent decade-plus teaching first-year writing at the university level. To state it bluntly, many of the behaviors that are effective for being a good student are behaviors that must be set aside in order to be an effective and compelling writer.

I began addressing this tension early in my career as a high school English teacher by de-grading and de-testing my classes. The writing process, I found, had to be de-graded so that students could focus on substantive feedback and commit to drafting free of concern for losing credit.

But by the time students reach college, they have been trained in a graded system; that graded system implies that students enter each assignment with a given 100, and thus, students learn to avoid the risk of losing points (see my discussion of minus 5).

But equally harmful is that college students have also been fairly and even extremely successful in a grading culture driven by rubrics, class rank, and extra credit—each of which shifts their focus to the grades (and not the quality of their work) and centers most of the decision making in their teachers.

For example, I currently teach at a selective university. Most of my students have been A students in high school.

Yet, they seem paralyzed when confronted with decision making and genuinely terrified to attempt anything not prescribed for them.

In my first year seminars now, students are revising their cited essays, and one student emailed, asking if they needed to cite a YouTube video (of course) and how to do so.

At this last question (although the first is really concerning) is where I find myself often answering: “Just Google, ‘How to cite a YouTube video in APA?'”

A reasonable person of moderate affluence in 2020 with access to the Internet (often on a smart phone) would search anything they didn’t know using a browser. I am convinced that being a student tends to create helpless people out of very capable young adults.

And despite several direct lessons on and multiple comments and examples provided in materials and on submitted drafts, many of my students continue to submit revised drafts with the first few sentences, as they did in high school, overstating nothing; these are from revised essays after I once again addressed overstating nothing in the opening sentences:

Some questions that have been floating around for a while are, is college worth it?

Day to day interactions between different people form the bonds for different relationships in our lives. People have acquaintances, friendships, romantic relationships, familial relationships, and more.

While I want to share some of my strategies below detailing how I confront the tension between being a student and a writer for my students, I must stress that my uniquely different classroom creates an entirely new tension because I must recognize that most of my students’ academic careers will remain in traditional classrooms tethered to traditional grading.

Therefore, I seek strategies that address simultaneously how students can present themselves as careful and diligent students as well as credible, engaging, and compelling writers.

Those strategies include the following:

  • Teaching students how to prepare and submit work (often with Word) that reflects them in a positive way for anyone evaluating them. While I discuss with students that document formatting is trivial, a careless submission will likely negatively impact how any teacher/professor views them as students. I encourage them to learn how to format with Word (using page breaks and hanging indents, for example); to navigate track changes and comments (creating clean documents to resubmit); to set their font to a standard size and font (to avoid submitting work with multiple fonts or font sizes, which they often do), including how to paste text so that it matches the document settings; and to address the Spelling and Grammar function in Word so that they do not submit documents with the jagged underlining noting issues they should have edited before submitting. Students also struggle with naming document files, attaching their work to emails, and emailing professors in ways that represent them well—so I am diligent about not accepting work until they meet those expectations. Important to note here is that in my class, these experiences come with no loss in grades, but I stress to them that in other courses, they likely could receive lower grades and probably will create a negative perception of them as students.
  • Instead of rubrics and writing prompts, we work from models of writing, and I provide for students checklists and examples that are designed so that they become the agents of their learning (and this is particularly frustrating since students still function with fear and thus avoid risk or making their own decisions). Drafting through all the stages of writing, then, are spaces where students are decision makers like real-world writer, but I provide them a somewhat risk-free experience that is unlike being a student.
  • In some respects, students seeking to present themselves well and writers seeking ways to be credible and engaging have some overlap. Therefore, many of my key points of emphasis as a teacher of writing will, in fact, raise their status as students. Some of these include attending to appropriate diction (word choice) and tone that matches the level of the topic being addressed, focusing on effective and specific (vivid) openings and closings (key skills for writers, but students establish themselves when being graded with their first sentences and then leave the person evaluating them with an impression linked to their final sentences), and selecting high-quality sources (typically peer-reviewed journal articles) and then integrating sources in sophisticated ways when writing (avoiding the high school strategy of over-quoting and walking the reader through one source at a time [see the discussion of synthesis in the link above and here]).
  • Students also leave high school feeling the need to make grand claims, grounded in simplistic approaches to the thesis sentence and standard practices by teachers that require students to have their thesis approved before they can draft an essay (see this on discovery drafts). I encourage students to focus narrowly and specifically throughout their essays while leaning toward raising questions (a more valid pose for students) instead of grand claims.

While I struggle, as I admitted above, with my tendency to be too demanding (my tough-love streak), I also recognize that providing only about 3 months in my unique teaching and learning environment faces a monumental hill to crest against more than a decade of experiences as students and student-writers.

More often than not, I do not crest, but descend a bit defeated like Sisyphus to roll that rock yet again.

The tension between being a student and a writer is not insurmountable, I hope, but it certainly must be confronted openly and directly in our classes, especially our writing-intensive classes.

In the world beyond formal schooling, many of the qualities of a good student will prove to be ineffective in the same way they are for young people learning to write well.

The best strategies for being an effective writing teacher include recognizing and helping our students navigate their roles as students—even as we seek to help them to move beyond those artificial restrictions.

Equity Politics: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free s long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is any of you.

“The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde

The U.S. has elected Joe Biden president, ending the presidency of Donald Trump.

This is a return to the standard failure of the democratic process in a country that is primarily committed to the free market, rugged individualism, and guns.

Biden is the normal but truly awful presidential candidate, replacing the uniquely horrible election of Trump.

As many people have noted, changing presidents typically means only small differences in the daily lives of people. Those with some affluence and privilege continue to have really good lives, lives that allow them to focus on trivial matters that seem huge because of that affluence or privilege.

People in poverty, working class people, and the many different categories of people living in what we have euphemized as “diverse” identities, however, will mostly continue to live barely in the margins of the American dream—even when these people also attain some level of wealth or privilege in their accomplishments.

The American democracy is a failed and failing experiment because it has allowed inequity to flourish, and those living with the most privilege, white Americans, refuse still even to acknowledge that inequity because they are so enamored with their own pettiness and convinced that they too face disenfranchisement and disadvantage.

It is the “war on Christmas” rhetoric that arrives every holiday season by people who benefit from being in a majority and Christian-centric nation; there is no rational basis for such nonsense, but white America is still a majority of delusion, clinging to the one thing they will not relinquish—their white privilege.

Having never been a Republican or Democrat, and having never drunk the Kool Aid of idealism about the founding of the U.S. or the American Dream, I have always none the less found one possibility of the U.S. not only beautiful but also worth believing in—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There is a poetic brilliance to that phrase that genuinely can and should be a map for the country the U.S. could become.

Even as I acknowledge Biden is a horrible candidate, I have found that his willingness to admit the U.S. has not yet reached our ideals and his charge to be the president for all Americans and not just those who elected him to be some of the better political rhetoric we can hear.

Those of us, especially those of us on the authentic Left, who embrace the possibility of human equity guaranteed by and for a free people have no real political party for our allegiance, but I do think we can use this moment in history to commit to a politics of equity built around the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A first step to making equity a reality in the U.S. is an education campaign, one specifically targeting the demonizing and fear-mongering around “socialism.”

First, there must be an honest distinction made between regimes that are identified as socialism or communism—regimes rules by dictators or de facto dictators—and democratic socialism.

Fear-mongering around the former U.S.S.R., China, and Castro’s Cuba is purposefully distracting the voting public from democracies that embrace first publicly funded and democratically chosen institutions that make the free market and personal freedom possible in equitable ways for all citizens.

Pure socialism and communism would mean the end of private business and private property, and frankly, I see no avenue to that sort of shift under either Republicans or Democrats. I also see no Leftist movement in the U.S. that calls for rule by a dictator; only the Trump movement and his followers (all occurring on the Right, not the Left) appear eager for a dictator.

The sort of totalitarian “socialism” that the Right is using to fear-monger voters would be equally rejected by the Left, including the seemingly growing belief among young Americans that democratic socialism is preferable to the Social Darwinism of the unfettered free market in the U.S.

“Socialism” as a concept, then, is quite different than how that term has been folded into dishonest political rhetoric or even claimed improperly (or misleadingly) by political movements more concerned about totalitarian control.

I do support democratic socialism; I also embrace the idea that a robust publicly funded network of institutions must be established in order for the free market and individual freedom to be equitable and accessible to all people regardless of their identity or status.

I am essential public institutions first, and then free market and individual liberty.

And thus, equity politics must be policy first, and not partisan politics first.

Life?

Universal healthcare.

Women’s reproductive rights.

De-militarizing and reforming policing and the judicial system.

Liberty?

Fully publicly funded K-16 education (student loan debt relief).

De-criminalizing, legalizing marijuana (releasing prisoners trapped in the war on drugs).

Removing the Electoral College and reforming representation across the U.S. that is equitable for rural and urban Americans.

Expanding access to voting and guaranteeing all Americans can vote without threat.

The pursuit of happiness?

Full rights to LGBTQ+ Americans.

De-coupling healthcare and retirement from employment.

Increasing the minimum wage and reducing the work week as well as expanding guaranteed paid vacation and family leave policies.

I cast a (worthless) vote for Biden/Harris in South Carolina (a self-defeating conservative state) as a symbolic gesture to end the reign of Trump. There is little hope in the Democratic Party, but the Republican Party is aggressively against all of the policies above that would move the U.S. closer to the ideal of human equity for all.

If the Senate remains in Republican hands, there will be little Democrats can do to move the moral arc toward equity.

But unless we have the political will as a people to form a new and stronger party built on principles of equity, we have only one option, transforming the Democratic Party into a genuine movement for change that serves all people.

And this cannot be achieved by compromising with Trump Republicans who do not value equity, human agency, or human dignity (except for themselves and those who look like them).

Biden as a person and a politician is only marginally preferable to Trump; this election should be seen as a mandate rejecting Trump, but it cannot be seen as an endorsement of returning to the normal that allowed the killing of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor.

White men and women in a majority and over 70,000,000 Americans voted for Trump, angrily and with a middle finger voted against equity for all because they belong to the cult of individuality and wealth that Trump represents.

This is a disturbing cancer on the American way of life; this is why the American Dream remains a nightmare for many and a fantasy for most.

Equity politics is a moral imperative, one driven by this proclamation by one of the most famous socialists in U.S. history, Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Without equity for all, there is equity for none.

Without the American Dream for all, there is no dream for anyone.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be extended to each and every American or we are failing our charge as humans.

Overstating Nothing: Why Students Often Write their Worst Sentences First (and Last)

I may have just read the worst essay I have ever read submitted by a student—since the beginning of time.

And that occurs in this context: I have been teaching adolescents and young adults to write for 37 years.

Of the tens of thousands of student submissions I have read, of course, this essay cannot really be the worst.* But that sort of dramatic overstatement is exactly what brings me to discussing that essay and many just like it submitted recently as we near the end of the semester.

Again, as context, many of these essays have been submitted after more than two months of first-year writing seminar where I have explicitly focused on vivid and engaging openings and closings.

These essays were submitted by students working on their third essay of the semester. With the first essay of the semester, as well, class instruction and the drafting process heavily focused on writing specific openings that have concrete and vivid narratives to both focus the reader and engage the reader.

Students have had multiple class sessions and several authentic models of writing in order to interrogate their concepts about introductory paragraphs (6-8 sentences with a declarative thesis sentence as the last sentence), and have repeatedly been confronted with this brilliant parody from The Onion: Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation.

Young Jeremy Ryan offers this peach of an opening (indistinguishable from many I just received from very bright college students):

For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation. Many advancements have been made in summer breaks since these early times, but it is also true that many different traditions have lived on and continue to remain with us today. This is why, since the beginning of time, mankind has discussed what it did on its summer vacation.

What students remain trapped within, despite my repeated direct instruction and feedback on their writing, are many years of powerfully misguided writing lessons that have created students who feel compelled in the first sentences of their essays to overstate nothing.

The opening sentences from my students are remarkably paradoxical in that they make grand overstatements that are somehow accurate and completely devoid of any concrete meaning.

Such magically empty writing depends on magically empty diction such as “disparities,” “variety,” “points,” “how,” “many forms,” “effects,” “changed,” “common,” and “standard.”

Students have been taught directly and indirectly to string words into a sentence while also tip-toeing around making mistakes; meeting the word count by forming sentences and paragraphs that seem to say something that is nearly impossible to identify as incorrect (but also impossible to validate) is the Holy Grail of being a student writer.

Writing within a graded system and being taught by teachers not trained as writers have created students who write relentlessly to overstate nothing.

I have been struggling against the five-paragraph essay and template writing for all of my 37 years, but over the last decade and a half, I have been working mainly with first-year students who teach me over and over that my three or so months of writing instruction have little impact on their learned (and well graded) behavior from the previous 12 years of school writing.

And this fall is particularly different in the context of the pandemic and the very real negative consequences of multiple layers of unusual stress on my students—their reduced bandwidth to focus on challenging work, especially if the expectations are different than what they have been successful doing in the past.

But even without the stress of Covid-19 and our brave new world of formal education, my students are reverting to really weak but comfortable ways of writing because this is their first cited essay with all sorts of new and difficult demands. Some of the students simply didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on writing well and citing properly (considering the arcane world of APA for students mistaught MLA throughout high school).

I am convinced that my approaches to helping students write better aren’t the problem here; what students need is the same sort of guidance throughout K-12 education so that writing well (clearly, vividly, concretely, and directly) isn’t a new demand once they head off to the new world of college.

What, then, are better ways to serve our students on their journey to writing well?

  • Remove the writing process as much as possible from grading so that students are allowed to take risks during that process, are encouraged to revise with purpose, and can focus on substantive feedback from their teachers, feedback that is instructional instead of evaluative.
  • Reject fully the five-paragraph essay and template writing; including reimagining the introduction/thesis>body>conclusion structure of the essay by focusing on engaging and focusing the reader in a multi-paragraph opening, acknowledging that the body of an essay (and paragraphing itself) may be many different lengths (but three certainly isn’t adequate at the college level), and urging students to see the ending (also multi-paragraph) as a way to present their best writing and most vivid and concrete details in order to advocate for themselves as writers (and students).
  • Explain to students that vivid and specific are qualities of writing that should be throughout their writing, never suggesting that students start broad and then narrow. Students read “broad” as “vague,” which never serves them or their readers well.
  • Provide students with explicit examples and strategies for writing vividly and specifically in the context of openings, bodies, and endings. As I did above, literally provide students with lists of words that overstate nothing (I also highlight these words when providing feedback for students on their writing).
  • Refrain from demanding that students propose definitive claims (having their introductions and thesis sentences approved before they can write), and shift to encouraging students to write in order to discover as well as address their readers with questions instead of grand pronouncement.
  • Focus on the key concepts that are valid across almost all types of writing, and then work within those concepts while providing more targeted lessons. Coherence and concision are two of those concepts that my students respond well to when reading Style, for example.
  • Acknowledge that ultimately students will receive grades based on the quality of their writing, and therefore, it is in their best interest as students to engage positively their primary reader (their teacher/professor) and to insure that this reader has a positive view of the essay and the writer as they finish reading the essay (students routinely write some of the worst sentences at the ends of their essays, significantly eroding what credibility they have built in their essay).

This is not intended as a “kids today” post or a harsh criticism of students.

My primary concern here is that students have often learned all too well lessons that are not serving them well and that my teaching them for three months has less of a positive impact than I’d like.

Since the beginning of time, students have learned to write badly; isn’t it time to allow them to be the vivid and specific writers and thinkers they are capable of being?


*Note: This post has been edited from its original posting. Regretfully, some have misread this post as a criticism of my students; part of the problem is the satirical opening (although I do note it isn’t intended as a true statement but as a satire of what students often do in their first sentences). I also note late in the post that this is not student bashing. In fact, my criticism is how my students have been taught to write. None the less, good intentions aren’t really worth much when people read something differently than intended. This is not a criticism or public shaming of my students (something I would not do), but I find that in writing about teaching writing, concrete (anonymous) examples are helpful—and a common practice in this sort of writing. I hope the original effectiveness of this post remains, but I think it best to leave the student examples omitted.

Diversity Hiring and the White Lie of “Most Qualified Candidate”

As the news has spread about my university being the latest case of white faculty claiming false diverse identities, I have seen on social media one of the negative consequences I anticipated from this situation—people criticizing diversity hiring.

I expected this sort of backlash because every time the issue of needing to hire a more diverse faculty has been raised among faculty, one of the first responses is, “We should always hire the most qualified candidate.”

The person voicing that position is always a white man.

And each time a new hire turns out to be a white man (again) even though the final 2 or 3 candidates include diverse people, the response is, “We hired the best candidate.”

The problem with this claim and even commitment is that white men constitute only about a third of the population, but are the majority in many fields—and almost always the majority in positions of power.

If mostly white men are making hiring decisions, there is a significant likelihood that these white men see “best candidate” in people who look like them.

With wealth and power disproportionately and historically pooled among white people, hiring has long been skewed toward white bias, cronyism, and nepotism.

If we are gong to be honest, in all fields, positions are flush with mediocre white men who have been hired for many reasons other than being the “most qualified candidate.”

And even though there is abundant evidence that white men have huge advantages in almost all fields—even ones that are predominantly Black, such as professional sports—there is a history of imposters there also.

Take the case of George O’Leary from 2001, in the world of high-level football coaching which is disproportionately made up of white men who are recycled through jobs at a mind-numbing rate:

Five days after naming George O’Leary its new head football coach, the University of Notre Dame announced today that O’Leary had resigned suddenly after admitting to falsifying parts of his academic and athletic background.

For two decades, O’Leary, 55, formerly the coach at Georgia Tech, exaggerated his accomplishments as a football player at the University of New Hampshire and falsely claimed to have earned a master’s degree in education from New York University. Those misstatements followed him on biographical documents from one coaching position to another until finally reaching Notre Dame, one of the most coveted and scrutinized jobs in college football.

Does anyone recall the rush to end the hiring of male football coaches due to high-profile cases of fraud?

Anyone calling to curb or end diversity hiring due to the rash of imposters in academia in recent years is simply grasping at a convenient and misleading reason to hide their real efforts to cling to white privilege.

“Most qualified” and “best fit” are white lies aimed at preserving the status quo.

Here are some harsh truths that must be stated:

White male exceptionalism is a lie, and white male mediocrity is extremely common across all fields.

Diversity hiring remains necessary, and hiring candidates primarily for their diversity is not only acceptable, it is in fact preferable to counter-balance countless decades of white people being hired purely for being white and connected.

Daily, mediocre white men are hired while diverse candidates are expected to be exceptional and compete among themselves for ever decreasing positions in fields such as higher education.

The fear that a candidate may not be the “most qualified” in higher education—where almost all candidates have achieved a doctorate—is particularly ridiculous.

Certainly among academic doctorates and even medical degrees, there is a range of quality, but that range is already at an advanced level. For people with academic doctorates, there is also substantial evidence that even so-called weaker candidates have significant capacities to grow, learn, and improve.

Systemic racism and sexism still make diversity hiring very challenging, and as recent cases have revealed, higher education is likely very susceptible to the sort of fraud uncovered among white women posing as diverse candidates and scholars.

But hasn’t all hiring been prone to fraud and poor hires throughout history?

Curbing or ending diversity hiring would be yet another case of demanding perfection among diverse candidates and the hiring process while having never demanded perfection in the good ol’ boy system.

Recent cases of academic imposters are not signs that diversity hiring is a problem, but a few high-profile cases of fraud cannot be allowed to pause the already very slow progress being made to create faculty in higher education who look and live more like all of the U.S.

Diversity hiring remains a necessity, and “most qualified” is a white lie designed to derail those goals.