On Transitions and Students as Writers

Two decades ago, I left K-12 teaching for higher education. After 18 years as a high school English teacher, I found myself wearing a wrist brace, my right hand overwhelmed by year upon year of hand writing comments on about 4000 student essays a year.

I still hear from my high school students, many on their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. They remain kind and praise my class for helping them become successful student writers, and thinkers.

Although I moved from the field of English (and I always primarily saw myself as a composition teacher who happened to teach literature) to education, I have been fortunate to also teach first-year writing as well as an upper-level writing/research course. Much of my schedule now includes writing-intensive courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, even though I no longer teach literature-based courses.

One confession I must admit is that the transition from K-12 to higher education allowed the physical toll of teaching writing to 100+ students each year to alleviate, but the cumulative almost 40 years of teaching writing is wearing me down psychologically.

I am tired, and I am occasionally exasperated.

But I persist because I still feel the urge to teach, to teach better, and to learn along side my students. Fall 2021 has been another round of important lessons for me because I have been teaching two first-year writing (FYW) seminars in conjunction with a literacy course in our relatively new MAT program.

Both my FYW and graduate students are in transition, and both have overlapping challenges with those transitions.

One of the first activities we do in FYW seminars is to discuss a handout I created just a few semesters ago, Checklist: Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College [1].

Also relatively new for my FYW students is our final essay assignment; a few semesters ago because of the stress of Covid, I revised Essay 4 by combining it with the reflection I used to require for the final portfolio assignment.

The new assignment is as follows:

Essay 4 Assignment

Submit a showcase essay (approx. 4 pages) reflecting on what you have learned as a writer and what you see as the key weaknesses you need to continue to address. Include direct references to your essays (examples) and any significant connections to Warner or Style (quotes and page numbers are encouraged; include proper citing and references page if needed). Take great care to show in the essay the key elements about writing and essays you have learned in this course.

When this fall’s students submitted Essay 4, I read essay after essay that actively reflected that students have not learned many of the key concepts of writing in college that we emphasized throughout the semester. Something that all teachers of writing will recognize occurred: After students demonstrate “learning” through revision of one essay, they revert and fail to apply that learning in the next essay.

Scholars of grammar, for example, have identified that phenomenon with surface features (see Connie Weaver here and here), but this is also common as students are learning and making significant transitions as students as writers.

My FYW students were struggling with the transition from successful high school students/writers to writing as college students; my MAT students faced moving from being very successful undergraduates to performing as graduate students.

One reflection from a FYW student included a key observation, I think:

Students learned in high school several practices that actively work against their ability to make transitions, their understanding that at each level of education, the expectations change and evolve.

This student’s comment highlights the importance of students in K-12 having rich and authentic experiences with feedback and revision (I recently posted about the problem with students viewing feedback on their writing as “negative”). But the comment also reveals the problem with grades trumping a student’s ability to focus on growth and engaging in an assignment once a grade is assigned.

For both my FYW and MAT students, making the transition to different expectations and different requirements for scholarly writing (specifically moving from MLA to APA) has (too) often resulted in antagonism and paralysis.

I am having some difficulty separating the source of why my students struggled this semester because I am suspicious that some of the challenge lies with the cumulative effect of Covid fatigue.

For example, my FYW students typically submit more than 90% of their writing assignments on time although I do not grade or deduct for late work. This semester, however, only 8 of 22 students submitted all essays fully and on time (although 21 of 22 did complete all work fully ultimately).

None the less, I am certain that a key problem for both my FYW and MAT students has been that their experiences with writing in school and with the writing process (or lack there of) were static (template- and rules-based) instead of developmental and conceptual.

For example, as I have noted before, students in my FYW often acknowledge that they were taught MLA in high school as a monolithic only way to cite that would continue through college. When I note that most of my students will never again use MLA, and will certainly be required to use discipline-specific citation style sheets among their college courses, they are often angry and frustrated.

While teaching my FYW students, I am preparing them for the demands of disciplinary writing and ultimately for writing as scholars in potentially any field once they declare a major; I also anticipate that several of my undergraduates will move to graduate degrees, where scholarly writing includes even greater demands.

I ask my FYW and MAT students to rethink how they integrate sources in their scholarly writing by moving them away from over-quoting (noting that textual analysis requires direct quoting, but many style sheet in several disciplines discourage quoting) and away from walking their reader through one source at a time (many FYW students admit this is how they have written all of their “research papers”) and toward synthesizing source material in sophisticated ways that create an original scholarly essay in their own voice and with own authority.

My writing-intensive courses are demanding, and some of the responses this semester have included very open frustration and even anger as well as some signs that those demands are beyond students’ capacity to engage fully and effectively in the process.

I have a few thoughts on why—beyond the recognition that Covid-fatigue is certainly part of the problem.

Some students expressed concerns that since I am an active, professional writer, I am asking them to perform as “writers” beyond what they can or even want to do. Here, I need to make a better case that we are in a writing-intensive course in college because they will have to perform as writer/scholars throughout undergraduate and graduate education.

The more difficult problem, one we do not acknowledge enough, is that 3-months of writing instruction is unlikely to be long enough for students to demonstrate what they have learned.

Once again, John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice was a hit with FYW students, and as Warner emphasizes, when anyone is learning to write, there is no finish line. As I have noted in previous semesters, students do hear and appreciate Warner’s message that learning to write is about progress, and not perfection. However, putting that to practice is extremely hard for students legitimately concerned about what grade they will receive in a course.

Finally, what I heard my FYW and MAT students say often is that they struggled to see the substance behind some of the concepts my courses stressed; students were trapped inside viewing many of the requirements and lessons as “just formatting”; therefore, I made a list connecting those requirements with the substance—hoping that in the coming semesters, their writing will eventually demonstrate the learning that some of their current work does not:

Key Concepts for Writing in College

1. Openings/introductions should be specific and compelling. Avoid overstatements and huge claims, and be sure to include a clear and specific focus/thesis (can be multiple sentences and/or questions you will answer).

2. Take care with your word choice/diction. Prefer specific and clear language. Make sure the diction/tone of your word choice matches the seriousness of your topic. Concrete and specific word choice is always preferred.

3. Your writing should have purposeful structure and organization. Use subheads to provide that structure and organization. and keep those subheads balanced (more than one paragraph and about equal in length).

4. Make fewer claims and always provides evidence for your claims; develop the evidence and explanations/elaborations. Any time your evidence is from a source, you must fully cite.

5. Focus on purposeful sentence and paragraph formation; length variety shows purpose.

6. Integrate sources into your writing in sophisticated ways, focusing on the content of the sources (write about the patterns found in your sources, and not the sources). Avoid using one source at a time, and recognize that one source is not proof your claim is true.

7. Create a compelling closing that does more than restate your opening. Recognize that the closing is after your reader has read your essay. Give the reader vivid and specific language, and emphasize what the reader should now understand better or do with the new knowledge/understanding. your closing is the last thing in your reader’s mind; make it count.

8. Edit and review your essay submissions for formatting and citation expectations (every discipline has different citation expectations; be sure to refer to a credible style guide). Run spelling/grammar check before submitting and never submit an essay with spelling/grammar alerts active on your document.

On the last class session of my FYW seminars, we discussed this list, and I emphasized that they should review each final version of their four essays within these parameters before submitting their final portfolio/exam.

Today is exam day, and I will soon find out what they can demonstrate.

Just as my students must remain grounded in the understanding that learning to write is a journey, I too must assign their grades recognizing they are on that journey—and for me too, teaching others to write is a journey.

[1] 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 drafting, and likely will not be effective in college (even if you received high grades in high school for doing this).
  • 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).
  • Planning for several days to draft is necessary, and establishing a routine for revising that commits to one revision focus at a time (diction and tone, paragraphing, etc.) is often effective.
  • Read and use as models published academic and scholarly essays along with public and creative nonfiction essays in order to increase your toolbox as a writer.

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 (most topics have more than only 3 points) and guarantees you will under-develop your discussion.
  • Write to a clear audience (not your teacher or professor), recognizing that academic writing often has a well-informed audience and that a public audience can range from being poorly informed or misinformed to being highly experienced and knowledgeable.
  • 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].”
  • 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 to your topic impacts your credibility as a writer.
  • Always prefer specific, vivid, and 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), running your essay through the grammar and spell check (be careful not to leave your essay with the colored underlining 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 (examining 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).; writing about topics or making arguments 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.
  • File 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.

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 as well as revising and editing beyond responding only to feedback; 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 but attending primarily to feedback without revising/editing independently; 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.