Category Archives: Writing

Teaching Writing in the AI Era

I am available for professional development, book clubs, or webinars/podcasts to address “Teaching Writing in the AI Era.”

It’s the End of Writing as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Blog Review: 2022

After about a decade blogging on other open sites and dabbling in social media as part of my public work, I committed to blogging at WordPress in 2013, and to date, had my highest traffic year in 2014.

Between my Twitter presence and blog, I always expected to have a greater reach at Twitter, but by 2022, I have just short of 8000 followers on Twitter and over 10,000 at this blog.

As part of my current fall sabbatical, I revised and redesigned this blog to make it more appealing and (I hope) to better present the work as professional (blogs continue to be discounted and marginalized despite the vast majority of my posts being heavily cited).

I am on track for 2022 to be the third or second best year:

And here are my top 10 posts of 2022 (eight original to this year):

Access these posts as follows:

While the “science of reading” dominated my work, I am quite proud of my comic book posts throughout 2022, notably my series on Black Widow and my frequent posts on my collecting Daredevil.

I also want to highlight two of my scholarly projects:

Why do I blog?

Primarily, I am a writer and writing is who I am so blogging is a wonderful way to write and draft, a way to think through important issues while also contributing to the public discourse that drives not only what people think but actual policy.

Also, blogs are accessible (essentially free to anyone who have internet access), and I feel far more valuable and effective than traditional scholarship that sits behind paywalls.

I have been an educator for almost 40 years, shouting the entire time that we mostly do this thing called education badly because we are thinking wrong or simply stuck in a rut of doing things only one way (for education, that way is “Crisis!> reform > Crisis! > reform, etc.).

Yet, I think we can do better, and I know we should.

Thank you for reading because that is the thing we writers are mostly seeking—those genuinely and sincerely engaged in the ideas we are drawn to interrogate and explore.

Let us hope for a better, more kind and peaceful 2023.

It’s the End of Writing as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Recently there has been a different type of crisis rhetoric around education. This “the sky is falling” event concerns “the OpenAI, ChatGPT interface [that] is now capable of producing convincing (though uninspired) college student quality writing to just about any prompt within seconds,” explains John Warner.

The freaking out has been a tad bit extreme: Daniel Herman announcing, for example, The End of High-School English.

Let me emphasize first that if you are concerned about AI-generated writing by students, please prefer Warner’s analyses and his two excellent books on writing (I use one with my first-year writing seminars): my review of The Writer’s Practice, my review of Why They Can’t Write, and my post about my FYW students’ response to The Writer’s Practice.

Now let’s focus on the hyperbole and the seemingly very real threat that AI-generated writing will erase writing assignments in K-16 education.

First, like Warner, I say: It’s the End of Writing as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

I have been writing about writing and the teaching of writing for decades, and I have consistently challenged traditional approaches to writing instruction that is template and prompt driven. But I have also challenged the over-reliance on computer programs and technology to respond to, evaluate, and police student writing.

This new development around AI-generated writing is simply an extension of the Turnitin.com problem.

Once again, technology is not threatening student writing or the teaching of writing in K-16 education. Technology is exposing the essential problems with student writing and writing instruction in K-16 education.

As I outline in my chapter, De-grading Writing Instruction: Closing the “Considerable Gap,” for De-Testing and De-Grading Schools, the history of writing instruction in K-16 education is primarily one of misguided instruction, assignments, and outcomes. Yet, I also note that with the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP) and a move toward process writing in workshop contexts, there was a brief period of hope in the 1970s when momentum shifted in writing instruction toward what many writers and educators recognize as authentic composition.

And then A Nation at Risk and the tidal wave of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing washed away that hope.

The accountability movement ushered in the rise of rubrics and set the stage for computer grading of the so-called basic skills needed by all students—reading, math, and writing.

The consequences of this shift to accountability, which essentially ended the era of authentic writing instruction, resulted in teachers who believed they understood more than ever how to teach writing, but were in teaching/learning situations that did not allow for much writing to be assigned or for students to produce substantial amounts of original writing (see Applebee and Langer).

For example, when I was a beginning high school English teacher, my home state of South Carolina was an early adopter of exit exams, including a writing section.

My high school quickly pivoted to teaching to the test (see Bracey about WYTIWYG: “What you test is what you get”) by training struggling students to write 3-5-3 essays—a 3-sentence introduction, a 5-sentence body, and a 3-sentence conclusion.

This template provided the minimum amount of writing to be scored proficient but also limited the space in which students could demonstrate “errors” (we learned that patterns in writing, not single instances, triggered low scores).

The result was the highest passing rates in the state and a generation of students who wrote incredibly vapid and brief “essays.”

Now, if AI-generated writing can produce passages or even entire essays that meet the expectations of assignments in K-16 education, we shouldn’t be flailing our arms and racing around in Apocalyptic panic because that is a signal that the type of writing students are assigned and the writing they are taught to produce weren’t very good to begin with.

None the less, there appears to be a technology antidote available to those prone to seeking out technology—How to Detect OpenAI’s ChatGPT Output, Sung Kim.

Just as I see no need for Turnitin.com (and the research also refutes the values in the program; see the end of this post HERE), I believe the very real threat of AI-generated writing in K-16 education can be both a welcomed end to bad writing instruction, assignments, and essays by students as well as an opportunity to implement writing practices that greatly minimize students wanting or needing to cheat (similar to how we should be approaching traditional plagiarism).

Here, then, are my recommendations for addressing the Brave New World of AI-generated student writing:

  • A key problem at the core of student writing and teaching writing in K-16 formal education is that the assigning and teaching of writing has disproportionately been the responsibility of ELA teachers (disproportionately experts in literacy and literature) who have little to no experience as writers and woefully inadequate preparation to teach writing. So a first-step to addressing writing in formal schooling is to better prepare teachers as writers and writing teachers (again, we have a ready-made process for that in the now underfunded NWP model).
  • Next, a key way to encourage student engagement in writing and learning to write is to de-grade the writing process. See posts on de-grading and De-testing and de-grading schools: Authentic alternatives to accountability and standardization. Students who cheat are often driven by fear of failure or their inability to manage deadlines and workloads. Creating supportive and low-stakes environments for writing is foundational to both students learning to write and high-quality original student writing.
  • A subset of the above point, writing must be a process and conducted in workshop class sessions. Process writing means students must produce artifacts demonstrating brainstorming and pre-writing, drafting, research, and revision after peer and instructor feedback. Plagiarism and AI-generated writing thrive in one-shot writing assignments driven by prompts; process and workshop writing by students support original thinking and writing as well as artifacts of the type of writing students can produce.
  • Begin any course that includes writing assignments by having students produce in class a writing sample followed by having them submit a brief writing sample out of class. These samples can provide evidence for their writing styles and abilities.
  • Include direct instruction and conversations in class about Turnitin.com and ChatGPT as well as why students engaging in authentic learning trumps trying to fulfill assignments or achieve specific grades.
  • Finally, re-evaluate all writing assignments for authenticity and value in the course. If students can succeed with AI-generated writing in an assignment, that is likely a signal the assignment is the problem.

The fatalistic response to AI-generated student writing does not upset me because I have been making the same arguments above decades before this occurred. As I have often explained, writing and teaching writing are journeys, not destinations.

The threat of AI-generated student writing is not the end of that journey but an opportunity to take the fork in the road that we have been ignoring for decades.


See Also

AI Isn’t The Threat to High School English. Censorship Is: Book Censorship News, December 16, 2022

Journey cover

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Academic Writing: Process, Practice, and Humility

Recently, I accepted a scholarly writing assignment, a policy brief for a university-based think tank. As I approach submitting the initial draft for peer-review and then revision before publishing, the experience has helped me continue to think about ways in which teaching students to write present challenges for both teachers and students.

My writing assignment matches well the scholarly cited essay assignment in my upper-level writing/research course—a course where students tend to struggle with breaking free of reductive research paper approaches to writing.

In my first-year writing (FYW) seminar, I have very broad goals for students. I see FYW as transitional and foundational. The writing assignments are designed to help students confront and move beyond the assumptions and approaches they have acquired in K-12 coursework (transitional) and then begin to establish an awareness of writing that will serve them well in academic settings and beyond (foundational).

The FYW seminar allows me to practice my beliefs about writing and teaching writing—such as providing students with a great deal of choice in writing topics and form (we directly reject the five-paragraph essay and challenge template approaches to writing and the writing process).

But in the upper-level writing/research course, both the students and I must navigate the realities of scholarly writing, including the narrow parameters of academic citation and structured/prescriptive writing templates. I explain to my students that often academic writing follows templates that are rigid and even clunky, but scholarly journals and other publications allow very little deviation from those requirements.

The upper-level course also asks students to better understand that citation style sheets are guidelines for more than citation, such as tone, sentence and paragraph formation, and integrating sources (we specifically examine the stylistic difference between MLA, what they are often familiar with, and APA).

These are undergraduate students, and much of what I ask them to consider and produce is another type of transitional and foundational—transitioning from writing like a student to writing like an academic/scholar and foundational for scholarly writing in graduate school or the so-called real world.

I accepted the policy brief assignment near the end of my spring upper-level writing/research course so I was able to share with the students the assignment as a sort of justification for their cited essay assignment. The policy brief project includes the following elements that I include in the course:

  • The policy brief has a detailed content outline, six defined sections.
  • The executive summary and policy brief have strict word count requirements (including a direct warning that exceeding the word count would result in the manuscript being returned).
  • Guidelines address tone, word choice, and structure/organization.
  • The think tank uses a modified citation stylesheet (based on APA but using endnotes).

As an experienced writer and academic, the narrowness of the assignment and genre (policy brief) was stressful—likely in similar ways that are stressful for my students in the upper-level course—because it is writing unlike what I tend to do. Also, the requirement for using endnotes is a citation approach I have rarely used.

This last point, about using endnotes, is the primary lesson I now have for my students.

I completed a full draft well ahead of deadline, but that drafting had been plagued by my concern for the word count. I was well over both the executive summary and full policy brief requirements. So when I sent in my initial full draft, I had worked for days cutting and tightening—nearly to exhaustion because I was trying to fit a great deal into what appeared to be a nearly impossible word count.

When that draft was returned to me, I was immediately confused since the feedback noted I was way under word count—and thus, much of the feedback stressed a need for adding and explaining more fully. I also received very valuable feedback about organization (editorial feedback is incredibly useful for academic writing since that feedback typically has the context of the writing assignment more clearly than the author of the piece).

What happened?

Well, despite my constant warnings to my students about knowing the features of Word, I fell pray to ignorance since I wasn’t aware my Word default word count included the endnotes. Once I adjusted that, my draft was, yep, well under word count.

Although I don’t recommend making such mistakes as part of the writing process, this was part of the process for me, and while it was embarrassing and frustrating, my next round of drafting was much improved because I had feedback and a greater awareness of my writing purpose and the assignment template.

But another experience with the writing process also struck me as something important to bring to the classroom. Over a few days, I began revising my first full draft, greatly expanding my literature review. As a result, I reviewed that research again, finding more and better ways to integrate that evidence.

Part way through revising and expanding the literature review, I took a break to do a gravel ride. While cycling, I continued to work on the policy brief in my head, and had so many writing epiphanies that I paused during the ride, typed out those ideas in Notes, and emailed myself the brainstorming:

  • Teacher/teacher ed in lit review
  • Move MS to analysis
  • Cover UK research in BL section of lit review
  • Frame analysis with bullet list of SoR claims in intro

While cycling, I realized at least one important gap in the lit review and made some key decisions about organization.

While I had left the draft a bit drained, once I returned from the gravel ride, and showered, I was energized to quickly note the changes in my draft (I moved sections and added brief placeholders, all in red text, to guide my further revision).

Regardless of how often I explain this to students, I cannot emphasize enough that the writing process is quite messy, rambling and recursive. Students, I think, are very uncomfortable with that messiness and struggle to see all drafting as tentative (likely because writing in school is often graded).

While I have a new and “completed” full draft, I still do not see the project as finished. I will have editorial and peer-review feedback, and the final text will be copyedited and formatted.

I have done a tremendous amount of work, and the writing project is still in an early phase.

My writing process included making a mistake with word count, significantly rethinking the next draft while doing a gravel bicycle ride, using red text in my draft to guide revision, and emailing notes and drafts to myself.

Like my students, I struggled with writing within a template, navigating an unfamiliar stylesheet and endnote format, and fully understanding a type of writing I have little experience with. A significant amount of my time has been spent reviewing my sources, seeking out more sources, and copyediting the endnotes several times.

Academic writing is almost equally invigorating and mind-numbingly tedious.

A final point about how my real-world experience with academic writing can inform teaching students academic writing is the recognition that students are often trying to navigate both an unfamiliar writing assignment and coming to understand a complex topic and the research related to that topic.

I am working on a topic I have examined for years, and most of my evidence was already compiled and organized (and examined) in my blog and two editions of a book.

For students to be successful in an upper-level course requiring them to confront both new ways to write and cite as well as new content and evidence, we must provide the most supportive contexts possible.

I require and allow a great deal of drafting, provide class time for drafting and conferences, do not grade writing assignments, and repeatedly stress that the essay is a process (that all writing is tentative).

None the less, students have been trained to be finishers and to focus on a grade; both are not conducive to academic writing, or writing of any kind.

Once this project is completed, I have some excellent artifacts to bring to the classroom, but most of all, I have a heavy dose of humility that always serves teachers of writing well.

The Good Student Trap: Research Paper Edition

I teach good students.

I write that with no sarcasm, or cynicism.

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching at a selective liberal arts university, and the students are mostly high-achieving young adults who graduated high school as A or B students.

Like me, my students also have a tendency toward the often ignored consequences of being gifted or smart—anxiety, depression, imposter’s syndrome, perfectionism.

While “good student” is a compliment, I remain convinced that performing as a good student is also, as Adele Scheele argued, a trap. Scheele posed that students learn good student habits in high school that they then apply in college, but often find those behaviors no longer are successful—or even valued by professors:

We were learning the Formula.
• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

But more powerful that acknowledging that good student behavior doesn’t translate into college, Scheele also confronts how the good student trap creates irrational fear:

So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do—if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

I often watch these dynamics with my first-year students, which I anticipate. But the most dramatic example of this tension is in my upper-level writing/research course, notably when students submit this assignment:

Assignment

Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see link above and student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. NOTE: This cited essays is primarily a critical analysis of media coverage, and not simply an essay on your chosen education topic. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

For 8-10 pages, a proposed structure:

Opening – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); be sure to include essay focus on media

literature review – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the sources (write about your topics, not the sources)

media coverage – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the media and include several examples

relationship between research and media – 2 pages; this is the most important goal of the essay so connect research and media examples

closing/conclusion – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); must emphasize essay focus, media analysis

Assignment for EDU 250, Paul Thomas, Furman University

Despite the highly structured details in the assignment, and despite students having several class sessions devoted to workshopping the assignment (and two scaffolded assignments—submitting a working references list and submitting annotated bibliographies for their sources), they struggle with completing the assignment as assigned, resulting in intense and negative responses to the feedback I provide on the first full submission.

The good student trap experienced by students here is that instead of conducting, writing, and submitting a media analysis project, students fall back to writing a high school research paper.

The reductive and inauthentic research paper students learn in high school is essentially behaving and writing like a student—collecting and writing an overview of “sources,” typically plowing through those sources one at a time and heavily quoting from each source.

The assignment I ask students to engage in requires that they move away from student behaviors and toward writing as scholars; that shift means that they gather and student scholarly sources in order to provide themselves a lens for writing an original essay (in this case, becoming expert on an educational topic in order to analyze the quality of media coverage of that topic).

For example, students tend to write “research papers” that explicitly state “my sources” and “my media articles” in order to detail “what I learned about X topic” instead of analyzing how media covers that topic.

My feedback includes nudging them (again) not to write like students, stressing that they are not doing the assignment (I refer them to the outline provided and the need to focus on “media analysis”), and warning them about citation concerns (including carelessness that rises to technical plagiarism).

With my feedback, the fear and negative response cycle kicks in. Students seem unable to trust a workshop environment in which draft submission, feedback, and revision are not only expected but required.

The good student trap has also trained students to see all feedback as evaluation, judgment, and to fear that not being immediately perfect is a signal that they have failed, or that they are going to fail.

Anticipating their fear and expecting they received my feedback negatively, I emailed them and assured them that revision was expected and that everyone was still capable of making an A in the course regardless of how well their initial submission had fulfilled the assignment.

In the first class after returning their essays with comments, however, they were mostly frantic; many of their comments were dramatic distortions of the feedback they received.

None the less, once they had their draft in front of them, they admitted seeing the gap between the assignment and what they submitted was much clearer to them.

So here is what my good students teach me over and over.

First, they confirm that prescriptions and templates are not nearly as effective as many people believe; I have always rejected prescriptions, templates, rubrics, and prompts for teaching writing—despite their all being common in traditional classrooms.

Students respond better to direct instruction once they have an artifact in front of them for context.

Next, they demonstrate for me the negative power of prior behavior that is successful, regardless of the credibility of that behavior. In this case, students struggle mightily to let go of the research paper.

And finally, they embody the paralysis of fear of not being good enough, not being perfect.

Unless traditional schooling changes—and I suspect it will not—I am faced with this reality continuing, and ultimately, I regret that the ones who suffer most in the good student trap are students themselves.

How the Rugged Individual Myth Distorts the Power of Collaboration in Art

If you want to understand the Taylor Swift v. Damon Albarn public dispute, I suggest exploring the history of super hero comics in the U.S.

I know that may seem odd, but from the wonderful novel by Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, to the infamous fights over who created what at Marvel (Stan Lee v. Jack Kirby and many, many others), to the rising awareness the the Marvel Cinematic Universe is generating huge amounts of wealth on the backs of ignored and marginalized creators, we have ample evidence that identifying single creators of complex art is much more difficult than people tend to imagine.

While there is no question that Albarn was factually wrong in his claim that Swift doesn’t write her songs, and glaringly inept in his sweeping discounting of the value of co-writing, I think the debate offers an excellent opportunity to interrogate how people often use the word “write” to mean “create,” and how the rugged individual myth (or better framed as a lie or delusion) distorts the power and reality of collaboration in almost all creative acts.

While rewatching some of the Netflix series based on Marvel characters, I noticed, for example, four creators identified for Luke Cage—Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr. This list identifies both writers and artists as creators, highlighting the essential problem that has existed in the super hero comic book business since the beginning.

Essentially, the comic book industry over the past century is an embarrassing story of denying creative contributions and resisting the essential nature of collaboration. Ironically, Marvel infamously experienced a crisis in the 1990s because a new wave of celebrity artists/creators began to assert their roles in creating comic books.

Throughout pop culture, what is created and consumed by audiences and who actually creates the product are overwhelmingly about collaboration—not only comic books (typically created by scripters/writers; pencil, ink, and color artists; and letterers) but TV series and films, and of course, pop music.

In a ham-fisted way, Albarn is speaking from and into an idealized view of the rugged individual as Artist.

The silly part of all this, of course, is that everyone knows the pop music industry is necessarily collaborative. In my own music fandom, for example, I learned to appreciate groups and solo acts that viewed pop music as both popular and art—notably my fandom of R.E.M., CAKE, Ben Folds (and Ben Folds Five), and The National.

And while there is a sort of wonderment to believing that performers such as Prince and Ben Folds created and performed entire albums “on their own,” and to watching Folds perform solo in live concerts, the truth is that nothing is really created in a complete vacuum of rugged individualism.

During the 1980s and 1990s when the disaster was brewing at Marvel, Athens, GA-based R.E.M. was rising to prominence and made the only right decision a musical group could make—assigned equal credit for all song to all four founding members of the band—Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe. For many years, R.E.M. also did not include lyrics with their album releases to maintain (some claimed) a focus on the whole product.

I don’t see much value in teasing out the Swift/Albarn back-and-forth itself because, frankly, Albarn’s comments were daft and even his apology is lacking. Swift is the creator of her catalogue; she, like all artists, did not do that alone, but the work is still unequivocally hers even if and when it isn’t only hers.

But Albarn’s original comments are worth unpacking in terms his use of “writes.”

Since I am a pop music fan, I have always noticed a jumbled overlap of fans who use “writes” to mean lyrics and fans who use “writes” to mean music (and then subgroups of different instruments, song parts, etc.).

Whether it is super hero comics, pop music, or film/TV shows, people are apt to look for ways to identify who deserves the real credit for “writing” a product.

That urge, I think, is driven by the rugged individual myth that pervades U.S. culture, and that ultimately distorts the power and importance of collaboration.

Michael Stipe, formerly of R.E.M., has recently begun working more seriously on solo music and has openly acknowledged his role as mostly the lyricist for R.E.M. and thus needing others to help him (re)learn how to write music as well.

Folds rose to fame with his group, Ben Folds Five, but his transition to a solo career was quite different since Folds worked as a writer of lyrics and music in the band [1].

And if we circle back to Swift, she is a powerful example of creative ownership since she has begun to reclaim her catalogue, including famously working with Aaron Dessner (of The National) to critical success (Dessner also defended Swift against Albarn).

Were the original songs under a different producer Swift’s? Are the new versions Swift’s? And is her “ownership” or “writing” diminished by collaboration?

It seems beyond silly (and mostly sexist) to challenge Swift as a writer/creator of her work, and it also seems careless not to acknowledge that her collaborators do matter; the collaboration is an important element of creativity that is undervalued in American culture (as a subset of the larger sexism driving who is allowed to be individually great).

I think we should take much more time to acknowledge and celebrate collaboration, assuming it is nested there in virtually all creative acts and products; “no [hu]man is an island,” and all that.

But we should also take better care of how we talk about creativity; in many cases, we should prefer “creates” instead of “writes” because art/products often include initial ideas, more detailed fleshing out into products, and the performances of many people with gifts and talents.

Especially with pop music, we should also acknowledge that part of creativity is performance; Swift is an artists and a performer (and as many people have pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, etc., can be described as entertainers more so than artists in terms of their lack of creating/writing songs by comparison).

The Swift/Albarn clash is a great deal of mansplaining rubbish; Albarn simply shouldn’t have made those comments. But it is also a powerful message about the distorted view of creativity and art in the U.S. because of our rugged individual myth-delusion grounded in a pervasive sexism.


[1] Folds’s “One Down” has great lines about the role of the pop music song writer:

Ben, just make up junk
And turn it in
But i could never could quite bring myself
To write a bunch of shit
I don’t like wasting time
On music that won’t make me proud
But now I’ve found a reason
To sit right down and shit some out

“One Down,” Ben Folds

Becoming a Good Writer: On Purpose and Authority

While watching (re-watching for me) Marvel’s The Punisher (Netflix), my partner noted, “He is a really good actor,” about Jon Bernthal who plays Frank Castle (The Punisher).

This is something we all do in our daily lives, declare “good” and “bad” as we navigate the world. In the so-called real world, we rarely interrogate those evaluations—what makes something “good” or “bad”?

However, in academia, not only do we bristle at the low terms themselves, but also we are in a nearly constant state of unpacking exactly what constitutes quality.

The comment about Bernthal (who is a captivating actor) came just after I had spent more time than I wanted addressing the Aaron Rodgers/Ayn Rand moment trending on social media. Any time Rand is mentioned, “Rand is a bad writer/philosopher” is not far behind.

For example, I found Adam Weiner’s How Bad Writing Destroyed the World, an analysis of Rand’s harmful influence on real-world politics in the U.S.

Also concurrent with people debating Rand’s quality as a novelist (since Rodger’s pointed to her Atlas Shrugged), I noticed Neil Gaiman (and Bill Sienkiewicz [1] in the comments) post the following on Facebook:

Gaiman’s comment: “The thing that makes me sad is that the incorrect apostrophe destroys the joke.”

So in those contexts, I want to consider exactly what we mean about whether or not a writer is “good” or “bad”—notably as a framing for students who are themselves trying to become good writers.

A first-level problem with considering the quality of writing is distinguishing whether we are focusing on the content of the writing or the actual composing itself. What does that mean?

When people blast Rand as a “bad” writer, they almost always are attacking the content of her novels, how she uses narrative to propagandize about her philosophical and ideological commitments.

If you look carefully, some who proclaim her a “bad” writer also concede that Rand crafted engaging stories and constructed those stories in purposeful ways (her craft as a writer).

By contrast, although Gaiman suffered some appropriate challenges, Gaiman is targeting how the credibility of any writer is inextricable from many elements of craft (diction, tone, grammar, syntax, sentence and paragraph formation, etc.).

While the field of rhetoric has a long history of debating medium versus message, for students learning to write better, I emphasize that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. To reach the Holy Grail of “good,” then, I think anyone learning to write must focus on purpose and authority (internal v. external authority).

All writers are seeking ways to establish and develop their authority (convincing readers of their credibility so that their writing is read and considered seriously). And that authority is impacted by the purposefulness of the writing (both in terms of content and craft).

Gaiman’s Facebook post represents how the credibility of a text (the humor of the eatery’s sidewalk advertisement ) is impacted by surface features (in this example, confusing the use of the apostrophe for possessive versus plural)—a seasonal debate often when people send out Christmas cards and can’t navigate how to pluralize their family names.

As a writing teacher, I would use Gaiman’s post to note that, first, we should resist shaming anyone for surface features, and, second, we can interrogate the text of the ad to note that “dogs” and “human’s” is not about correctness, but a sort of lack of purpose.

I would note that a student essay having these usages would be a signal of lack of control of language (and thus, an erosion of authority), and not about “correctness.”

Here, especially when working with students and developing writers, we must be very careful about how we explain the relationship between medium and message since Gaiman is triggering the urge toward correctness as an absolute marker of quality [2].

Since most students have come through formal education that uncritically fosters an unhealthy attitude about grammar and usage (correctness), teachers of writing are often confronted with how to unpack correctness and shift students toward purpose.

So-called standard English is problematic, often a veneer for racism, sexism, etc., so I invite students to consider, for example, James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and this wonderful unpacking of dialect quality, which in part notes:

The characteristics that distinguish African-American English from standard American English include the pronunciation of consonant clusters at the ends of words (“desks” and “tests” become “desses” and “tesses,” for example), the elimination of some third-person singular verb inflections (“He throw the ball.” “She write the book.” “He vote for the candidate.”), and certain distinctive uses of the verb “to be.” Among the latter, perhaps the most emblematic is the frequently misunderstood construction that linguists refer to as the “habitual be.” When speakers of standard American English hear the statement “He be reading,” they generally take it to mean “He is reading.” But that’s not what it means to a speaker of Black English, for whom “He is reading” refers to what the reader is doing at this moment. “He be reading” refers to what he does habitually, whether or not he’s doing it right now.

Ebonics

The marginalized dialect (often referred to as Black English, Ebonics, or AAVE) is in fact nuanced, complex, and powerful—as the unpacking concludes:

Only by moving beyond the deeply ingrained negative attitudes of the past, the speech researchers agree, is it possible to appreciate the multi-faceted subtleties of all human language. “Language is not just a matter of words and sounds and syntax,” says Seymour. “It’s an identity issue, it’s a social issue. It’s very complicated.”

Ebonics

Beyond fostering an unhealthy understanding of language, focusing on correctness often leads to students practicing an imbalance in the relationship between medium and message; many students have received high grades on writing that conforms to correctness but expresses very little, offers jumbled thinking, and/or simply misrepresents a topic.

Too often, as well, students have been rewarded for conforming to prescriptions that are neither good writing nor good thinking (five-paragraph essays that force all topic into 3 points).

Ironically, students spend so much energy confirming to scripts and correctness that they become bad writers.

Although there certainly is some wiggle room in spelling and punctuation, students must be aware that surface features in writing trigger assumptions about their credibility, the authority of the writer; in other words, purposeful writing and writer authority work together, are symbiotic.

Again, in the real world, there are far too many examples of public writing that shows how a writer’s established authority allows that writer to express some really careless and false ideas (let me note David Brooks, for example, who certainly can craft words and sentences in all the so-called correct ways while saying nothing or, more often, expressing simplistic thinking).

Students are in a very difficult position since they are almost always less authoritative on their topics than their professors/teachers as well as still on their journey to being “good” writers (in terms of having control of the language they craft).

We are left then with a journey, helping students develop their sense of purpose with composing that establishes their internal authority (the authority grounded in the essay itself) in order to create their external authority (the authority associated with them as people/students/scholars; again, see Brooks or Rand, who many recognize as people who think and write with some established authority).

Students must move away from correctness (the learned belief in rules such as “Don’t write fragments”) and toward purposefulness (crafting and choosing sentence forms, medium, that reinforce the message of their writing).

To be a good writer is a paradox, then. Good writers have a healthy understanding of writing (as Baldwin advocates for) while also being aware of the consequences of norms (see Gaiman’s somewhat petty lament).

When my partner praised Bernthal as a “good actor,” I agreed and noted several of the Marvel series on Netflix benefitted from many good actors, often allowing rather bad elements of superhero narratives to slip by (although several of the series also have good writing).

For students learning to write, we must do much more than say writing is “good” or “bad,” however, by helping students recognize and practice the elements of purpose and authority that lead to those evaluations.


[1] Sienkiewicz notes his own parody of misspellings on business signs from his run on Elektra: Assassin:

Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987) #6 (of 8) - Comics by comiXology
Elektra: Assassin 6

[2] See my poem parodying this phenomenon: grammar Nazis (post-apostrophe literature)

UPDATE: Possibly the best example of apostrophe confusion yet:

Helping Students Avoid Meta-Essay Moves

Maybe it’s the multiverse?

Or possibly the ever-evolving and shifting social media world that encourages young people to be the center of their own images and videos?

Well, actually, this is not going to be yet another “kids today” post by an aging educator. In fact, I know both the problem I am addressing (meta-essay moves) and the reasons why students practice them (direct and indirect lessons in school-based writing).

One of my favorite examples to help students reconsider their assumptions about writing essays as students is the brilliant Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation. It is a stand-alone master class in deconstructing the overstatement as the opening sentence of essays in school by students.

Despite covering this satirical essay by The Onion in class and despite my repeatedly emphasizing that students should never open with overstatements, students persist, turning in subsequent essays with the overstatement first sentence and the clunky traditional introduction (more overstatement) and then trying out a couple interesting paragraphs that match the lessons we conduct in class for engaging openings.

I mark that first sentence/paragraph and urge them to delete and focus on the better work following. And then, the next essay circles right back to the overstatement and clunky introduction.

This situation is but one of dozens of examples of students finding unlearning more challenging than new learning; many of my students earned A’s on their essays in high school, essays that began with overstatements and clunky introductions making grand proclamations.

Success is a powerful lesson for young people in school where grades are both the goal and motivation. However, artificial success is also a powerful deterrent for authentic learning—such as the inherent problem with using templates, the five-paragraph essay (equally as harmful for writing as training wheels for learning to ride a bicycle).

Another area I struggle to foster in student essay writing is avoiding meta-essay moves.

The classic example of meta-essay moves is the “This is what I intend to prove within the course of this essay” thesis approach (see The Onion satirical essay). I rarely have students still clinging to that (thankfully).

But what persists are meta-essay moves (bolded in examples below) around the use of sources in cited essays, for example:

  • According to The Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, anything more than twenty work hours a week can result in problematic grades or psychological well-being (Fuller, Lawrence, Harrison, Eyanson, & Griffin, 2019).
  • Most of the sources used tended to use the definition of disparity provided by the institute of medicine (Cook, et al.,2012; Williams & Wyatt, 2015; Wang, et al., 2013).
  • Many articles and papers done on these topics jointly don’t go far enough when splitting up classes to paint an accurate picture of disparities faced by different persons at various levels of class with varying races (Braveman, et al. 2010).

I joke with students that I anticipate something like the following when I read their meta-essay moves in cited essays: “When I got the assignment for this paper, I searched online through the library and found sources that included research on the topic I am writing about.”

These meta-essay moves about integrating sources is grounded in MLA style (and some of my motivation for addressing this is helping students recognize different style expectations among citation style sheets) and in a less obvious self-consciousness and insecurity among students as writers.

I provide students resources that guide them in ways to revise and integrate sources in sophisticated ways that emphasize the patterns found in their sources; my refrain is “write about what you learn from the sources and not about your sources.”

Students often have had disproportionate experience writing cited essays as textual analysis, requiring extensive quoting and using MLA citation. When they shift to other disciplines and different citation style sheets, they tend to remain trapped in meta-essay moves and narrow uses of evidence (quoting only).

I have, then, added to concepts traditionally used when integrating source material—quoting and paraphrasing—what I call “synthesizing” (from my resource material):

Prefer synthesis of multiple sources and discussing the conclusions (patterns) from those sources—and thus, avoid quoting and simply cataloging one source at a time. Take care with proper APA parenthetic citation; note the use of commas, page numbers with quotes only, and the placement of periods, for example:

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011).

Ironically, of course, we almost never hear a word of protest about the abundant misinformation found in our U. S. history textbooks (Loewen, 1996; Zinn, 1995), primarily because the misinformation better supports the meritocracy myth our schools are obligated to promote for the good of the society.

Recent scholarship on this concern for diversity and the achievement gap among races and socioeconomic groups has shown that when we attempt institutional approaches to “critical issues,” the result is corrupted by the system itself, resulting in a widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne (1996), work that has no research supporting the “framework” and work that reinforces the assumptions (deficit thinking) about race and diversity that are common in our society (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2009; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Gorski, 2008; Thomas, 2009).

Fostering in students more sophisticated approaches to cited essays is part of the transition from high school to college, but lessons from high school are incredibly resilient since my students often report they received A’s on those high school essays.

Yet, I persist because moving students away from meta-essay moves accomplishes two writing goals.

First, students are encouraged to recognize and avoid empty, filler text in their writing. “Many researchers have conducted studies on this topic” is a waste of text space, and frankly, that emptiness erodes any student’s credibility and authority.

Next, linked to the first point above, students need substantial writer/scholar moves to establish and develop their credibility and authority.

Again, students often admit they have written “research papers” by stacking up their sources and mechanically walking the reader thought those sources, one at a time, as if the essay is about the sources and not some authentic topic.

This is why they have the urge to write “my sources.”

The result is an essay whereby a student is a mere conduit for Source 1’s thoughts on The Scarlet Letter followed by Source 2, Source 3, etc.

My emphasis on synthesis of sources introduces to college students a fundamental move by scholars, reading source material to learn about a topic through identifying the patterns found in a body of research. Except when providing evidence (quoted text) during textual analysis, writers/scholars assert their authority through paraphrasing and original expression (synthesis is creating something new from assembled parts; the newness is the synthesis, even when the assembled ideas are not).

In short, paraphrasing/synthesis shows understanding in a more sophisticated way that simply selecting other people’s words.

Maybe students today are compelled to use meta-essay moves in the same way they post selfies on Instagram or videos on TikTok, and maybe there are valid reasons they want to keep themselves the center of their stories.

And while we do acknowledge the use of “I” as credible and common in scholarly writing, students must avoid the sort of meta-essays moves that erode their credibility.

At least until the Marvel Multiverse spills over into our daily world, and then, none of this will really matter.

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.

On Positive and Negative Feedback to Student Writing

Several students in my literacy course in our MAT program chose to read Donna Alvermann’s Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents. While the initial discussion around Alvermann’s essay focused on those students struggling with the density of her academic writing, they emphasized the importance and power of her addressing student self efficacy in the fostering of student literacy development:

Adolescents’ perceptions of how competent they are as readers and writers, generally speaking, will affect how motivated they are to learn in their subject area classes (e.g., the sciences, social studies, mathematics, and literature). Thus, if academic literacy instruction is to be effective, it must address issues of self-efficacy and engagement.

Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents

That discussion led to some very insightful comments about the importance of providing students feedback, as opposed to grades, on their writing as part of the drafting and workshop process (anchored in their reading Graham and Perin’s 2007 Writing Next analysis of research on teaching writing).

As a long-time advocate of feedback and someone who practices de-grading the classroom as well as delaying grades (assigning grades for courses but not on assignments), I strongly supported this discussion, and was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students.

That discussion had a subtext also—a concern raised by several students about the need for teachers to provide students positive feedback (so students know what they are doing well), and not just negative feedback. (Some of that subtext, I am sure, was an unexpressed feeling among some of these graduate students that they received mostly or exclusively “negative” feedback from me on their first submitted essays.)

After several students worked through this argument for positive feedback, I asked them to step back even further to consider, or -re-consider, what counts as “positive” or “negative” feedback.

In the sort of way Alanis Morrissette perceives irony, I found on social media Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession posted at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency—a brilliant portrayal of the tensions created by teachers giving students feedback on their essays, which begins:

I appreciate the hard work that went into this essay. It has many merits, but it also has something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it. In fact, I’m writing this feedback on my phone, cowering in the bathtub with my wife, after your essay terrorized and nearly destroyed us….

The essay was formatted correctly, and each sentence was more or less intelligible in itself. But altogether, the effect was—disorientation. Worse, actually. Pure senselessness. The Void.

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

This satirical piece does exactly what my MAT students requested, blending positive (“many merits”) with negative (“something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it”) feedback; and I think, herein is the problem with the dichotomy itself.

Once dramatically while I was teaching high school and often since I have been teaching at my current selective liberal arts university, I have encountered students who perceive all feedback as negative and reject having to revise their writing.

My argument to my MAT students was that actionable feedback on student writing is not inherently “negative” even though it does suggest something is “wrong” and needs “correcting” (perceptions grounded in students’ experiences in traditional classrooms that focus on the error hunt and punish students with grades).

However, I am well aware over almost four decades that part of my challenge as a writing teacher is how to help students see and respond to feedback as supportive and not an attack on their work or them as people (we had a great discussion about whether or not students can or should see their writing as inextricable from them as people).

In other words, affect matters.

Throughout the past 20 years teaching in higher education, I have been struggling against the perception by students than my written feedback is “mean,” “harsh,” “negative,” etc., while they simultaneously find my face-to-face feedback supportive and “good.”

I continue to seek ways to make feedback on student writing more effective as a key aspect of helping students grow as writers and thinkers as well as fostering their independence as writers and thinkers (learning to revise and edit their work on their own).

Students persist, however, in finding the feedback “negative,” and occasionally shutting down.

If there is a path to moving past the dichotomy of negative/positive feedback to student writing, I think it lies in the following concepts and practices:

  • Having explicit discussions with students about the inherent need for all writers to revise writing, ideally in the context of feedback from an expert and/or supportive writer/teacher. I often share with students samples of my own work submitted for publication with track changes and comments from editors.
  • Rejecting high-stakes for low-stakes environments in the writing workshop format. This is grounded in my commitment to de-grading the classroom that honors that writing is a process (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work).
  • Adopting strategies and rhetoric that rejects deficit ideology and the error hunt (Connie Weaver). It is important for teachers and students to prefer “revising” and “editing” instead of “error,” “mistake,” and “correcting” as the language surrounding the writing process. The pursuit in writing must be grounded in the recognition that all writing can be better even when it is currently quite good (and especially if is is somewhat or deeply flawed).
  • Clarifying for students that challenging and critical feedback is intended as actionable by students as writers, and thus, inherently positive. One of the recurring tone issues I experience with students viewing my written feedback as negative is misreading questions; students often read questions as sarcastic or accusatory when I am asking in order to elicit a response (for example, when I write “Did you look at the sample?” how I move forward with helping a student depends on that answer). As my MAT students expressed in the context of Alvermann, students absolutely do need to see themselves as writers and do need to trust they will be successful, but they also must embrace the need to revise and the awareness that no one produces “perfect” writing in one (or even several) drafts.

Feedback and the dynamic between teachers and students (including trust) are the lifeblood of the writing process when students are young and developing. As I noted above, affect matters and the teacher/student relationship inevitably impacts how effective the teacher is.

As teachers providing feedback, we must be careful and purposeful in our feedback, focusing on actionable feedback and creating/maintaining a culture of support and encouragement.

To that end, I believe we cannot reduce feedback to a positive/negative dichotomy that serves only to reinforce the cultures and practices we need to reject, deficit ideologies and the error hunt.

In the McSweeney’s parody above, the writing teacher and their wife are ensnared in a demon-possessed student essay, but the more horrifying detail of this piece is the ending—the realization that teachers and students are actually trapped in an even greater hellscape:

“I did it,” she sobbed. “I killed it. I killed it.”

“You did it,” I said, climbing into the bathtub with her, holding my wife close. “It’s over. It’s all over now.”

Silence.

Then she said, “It’s not over.”

“What—”

“You still have to grade it.”

80%

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

Yes, let’s work on feedback and the affect created around the writing process, but let’s not ignore that their are larger dynamics (grades and testing) at play that erode the teacher/student relationship as well as the effectiveness of teaching and the possibilities of learning.


See Also

Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

The Problem of Student Engagement in Writing Workshop

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism