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.