Tag Archives: Good and Bad Writers

Being a “Real” Writer

comic frame from Hyperbole and a Half depicts a girl typing happily on her computer at 3:17 am
Eerily accurate portrait of myself at this moment.

Ok, so sometimes I’m late to the party.  I just came across this two month old post at Hyperbole and a Half, which hilariously depicts what happens when we try to get our lives together and act like “real adults” (cleaning the house, buying real groceries, going to the bank, etc.), take on way too many responsibilities, start to slip a bit, plummet into a guilt spiral, and wind up indulging in shameful, non-adult habits like surfing the internet at all hours of the night (ahem).

This is a cycle I also tend to go through with my writing.  I’ll have a backlog of projects (blog posts, prospective articles, dissertation chapters, etc.) that I haven’t been able to finish, so I start setting schedules.  Actually, what usually happens first is that I read something like this and feel terrible that I’m not churning out a certain number of pages or staring at a Word document a certain number of hours of the day.  Writing advice columns are toxic for me.  No matter how benign and common sensical that advice might be, my brain interprets it like this:  “There are people out there writing so much more than I am.  I WILL NEVER BE A SERIOUS WRITER OR ACADEMIC OR EVER HAVE A REAL JOB OR BE ABLE TO FEED MYSELF UNTIL I GET MY SHIT TOGETHER!!!1!1!1!!1111 My therapist and I are trying to sort out why this is.

So I then start making promises to myself about how I am going to rise much earlier than my body would like and begin WORKING in all capital letters just like that.  I will get wildly optimistic about what I can accomplish and even–because why?  I’m not sure–start bragging about my ambitious schedule to my advisors:  “Oh yeah, I’m going to have a draft of that chapter I still have to read 20 books for by the end of the month!”  God bless these people.  They seem to know that it’s delusion but indulge me anyway.  So yeah, I’ll plug away at my writing for several hours a day for a few days.  I’ll read and take notes on stuff.  I’ll organize my bibliography and format the margins.  Then eventually I’ll realize that the actual text isn’t really going anywhere and I’ll start to panic.  I realize that my self-imposed deadlines, which were ridiculous to begin with, are going to be blown.   Then I start falling asleep at my computer because my circadian rhythms are all screwed up.  So I sort of say “eff it” and start distracting myself with West Wing reruns.

Eventually, the chapters do get done, but it never EVER looks like the advice dispensed in those writing advice columns.  I always spin my wheels like for weeks on end working in fits and spurts with the best of intentions until I discover the Alpha and Omega of ideas, the idea that unlocks the whole goddamn problem.  Then I’ll spend two to three weeks in a kind of writing fugue state, churning out massive chunks of prose in record time, working 7-8 hours a day and forgetting to eat, waking up in the middle of the night to write some more.  During these periods, I don’t need “motivation.”  I need chemical sedatives.  Last April, an epiphany struck while I was casually reading on my way home from a conference and nearly had a panic attack when I was asked to please turn off my electronic device.  Then I’ll emerge from this process exhausted and worn out.  I’ll send that project off to someone for feedback and then indulge in some World of Warcraft or Spider Solitaire or whatever, since my brain is by that point a wrung out piece of mush.  Then I’ll start that process all over again (it’s conveniently timed for maximum productivity in the months of November/December and April/May, so at least it’s attuned to the academic calendar).

Part of me sort of hates this.  I wish I wrote more like writing advice columns told me to.  I wish I were able to keep a meticulous writing log or commit to writing between the hours of 8 and 12 for more than a few days at a time.  I like to think that I would be even more productive if I did, but it’s not working out, at least not yet.

Part of me also wonders if those bits of advice so ceremoniously handed down are, in fact, little fictions in and of themselves.  Perhaps, instead of the sort of “here’s how I write and how you should too because I get columns published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Moses atop the mountain, handing you the keys to the kingdom wisdom nuggets I imagine them to be, they are in fact stories about how the author would like to write.  Perhaps they document how they think other people write, the inflated expectations they impose upon themselves after selectively watching their successful colleagues only during their best, most productive moments.  Or, you know, maybe I just need therapy.

I’m considering the notion of embracing my own process and making it work rather than trying to adopt someone else’s.  That’s a little bit scary, because I have issues with self-trust.  I would start with acknowledging that there is something sort of valid about the way I do things, that I do, in fact, get writing done and that the end product (once that first draft produced during the fugue state rests for a little while and gets a thorough revision or six over the course of the next few months) tends to be good.  All I would like to do is speed it up a little bit.  So instead of shaming myself for being one of those people who requires a moment of divine revelation in order to really get a project going, I can study the conditions under which those epiphanies occur.  They happen when I’m reading, actually.  So I need to read and read widely, even stuff that doesn’t seem to be 100% relevant.  They also happen when I’m not feeling harried and exhausted, so I need to create the conditions for calm to the best of my ability.  And yeah, sometimes that will mean a West Wing episode or two.

But accepting my own process also means setting aside my fantasies about how other, more successful writers do things.  The truth is, it probably isn’t as neat as it looks on the surface.  And it’s worth noting  that I’ve never actually looked at the name of the author of one of these columns and said, “Oh yeah, he wrote that groundbreaking article on the theory of blahdy blah blah blah.”  The world isn’t made up of just good writers and bad writers, successful writers and unsuccessful ones.  Most of us are just writers, puttering along, trying to figure shit out on our own terms, sometimes doing well at it and sometimes doing less well.

It’s the same with being a “real adult.”  Most other people over the age of 22 aren’t doing it nearly as well as you imagine they are.  I’ve long been insecure about not having a “real job” yet, a real job being defined by me as an arrangement in which you show up at a workplace at predefined hours and perform Work (whatever that may be).  Then my sister told me about her “real job” at a major accounting firm, where she sometimes did client work (sometimes late into the night) but also spent an awful lot of time reading ESPN.com.  She now has her own accounting business and recently told me that she does her most boring work on a dual monitor setup so that she can watch Glee on another screen.  She makes a  lot more money than me, too.  My other sister, who works the night shift on the reservations line for a major luxury hotel chain also surfs the internet between calls and is encouraged to bring a book to read to help stay awake.  In other words, I have learned that a big part of having a “real job” is showing up, performing the work that needs to be done but also just being there in case work needs to be done even if what you’re doing at any given moment looks decidedly not like work.

So yeah, I’ll own it.  I’m on fellowship, and my job looks an awful lot like vacation, especially to my father in law (therapy!).  But I can “show up.”  I can create the conditions that are likely to produce good writing.  I can learn more about how I write and potentially turn that knowledge into higher productivity.  And the thing is:  no one’s watching, not my parents, not the people who dispense trophies for being a “real writer/adult,” not the people who write the advice columns, and not even my advisors.  As long as the diss eventually gets done, who really gives a crap how it happened?

Image credit:  Allie Brosh

The Value of Editing a Colleague’s Work

No LFF post this week, because that just isn’t where my head is, and if I can’t put together a decent post for that series, I am just not going to do it!  Where is my head right now?  Well, I’m in the midst of editing my boss’s book, which is an enormous project but is also, quite frankly, the most fun I’ve had as a graduate student in quite some time.  Natalia Cecire of the blog Works Cited recently posted on how to receive a colleague’s feedback on your work (hint:  graciously and thoughtfully), but I’m also finding that giving feedback on a colleague’s (or superior’s) work can be a valuable rhetorical exercise and stimulate self-reflection.

My boss is a professor outside the English department who works in a field that nevertheless interests me.  He holds an endowed chair, recently won the book award from the top organization in his field (an entire journal issue was dedicated to responses to that book), and the book he is currently working on is his fourth.  In other words, editing this guy’s book feels like kind of a big deal.  Yet the experience has taught me that even prestigious faculty have to work extremely hard at their writing and have to deal with rejection.  See, his book has been under contract at a major university press for the past couple of years, and having submitted the final draft in February, he is now in possession of some readers reports that are making him second guess the project or at least his relationship with this particular press.  They just seem to want a very different sort of book than the one he wrote, which isn’t an indictment of his scholarship so much as it is a reflection of the divergent visions of author and publisher.  Now, we’re talking about a high class problem when the scholar in question can say, “Well, Oxford UP is interested in this project, so I may just take my work there,” but the less-than-smooth road to this book’s publication has given me a helpful, if somewhat scary window into what one has to face in getting one’s work out into the world.

So, he is having me edit the entire book before he sends it off to Oxford and a couple of other presses that have expressed interest.  So, I have been commenting on each chapter, and sending it back to him.  He makes some changes and sends them back to me to see if I like them, and he genuinely seems to appreciate my feedback and suggestions.  We have a dialogue, a dialogue (if I can say this without sounding weird) that is very much like the ones I try to create with my students, not an authoritarian call and response, but a colleague offering up an opinion as an informed reader.  I’m finding that the rhetorical moves I was taught to use in writing center consultations and in paper comments–stating your reaction “as a reader” rather than ordering the other person around–are perfectly applicable in this situation as well.  It helps that the person on the other end of the conversation adapts to the needs of his reader rather than insisting that the reader just work harder to understand.  Where he has pushed back against the reader’s reports, it has always had to do with philosophical or political disagreements.  The argument of his book is more populist than the press wants, thus making them feel that it should me published for the trade market rather than for scholars.  Also, the book deals with some politically sensitive issues that pissed one reader off to no end.  I’m guessing that the ability to adapt the writing to the reader’s needs without compromising the entire visions is how he came to be writing his fourth book and can basically choose the press he wants to work with.

So, it’s been a good lesson in how to both give and receive feedback, but it’s also been a confidence builder and an experience that has driven home the importance of peer review exercises for me.  Reading someone else’s work–whether the other person is a classmate or a superior–fortifies your instincts about what good writing looks like and how problematic writing could be adjusted.  There is something about the way we are taught about textual communication that makes us think that it is entirely up to the reader to “get” the author’s meaning, that makes us forget that readers are sometimes qualified to make certain judgments about how well an author is communicating that meaning.  In my earliest grad seminars, we often had to critique each other’s work, and I would often get intimidated by particularly dense papers whose brilliance I assumed I just hadn’t grasped.  When I started this editing project, I similarly feared that I would be revealing my own ignorance or unsophistication if I pointed out things that were unclear to me or places where the prose became cumbersome, but after getting through a few chapters (and my boss’s gracious attitude helps), I’m reminded that I am part of the audience for this work, a legitimately informed reader with enough expertise to comment on how well the author is communicating.  And that’s a pretty cool realization.

Editing someone else’s work is also a reminder that everybody’s writing has quirks, that everyone struggles with some basic aspects of usage or structure.  I, for example, have a weird penchant for using “this” ambiguously by burying the antecedent.  This guy tends to overuse “however” and often doesn’t tie parts of his historical narrative to his interpretive argument in order to remind the reader what we’re supposed to be taking away from the narrative.  In other words, one of these chapters under utilizes commentary sentences, assuming that the evidence speaks for itself, one of the writing concepts that so often bedevils my undergraduates.

It feels like I’m going to end this on a kind of “Everybody Poops” note, but it’s true.  Everyone writes shitty first drafts, and sometimes even the second or third drafts are problematic.  But the real lesson I’m trying to convey here is that you should jump at opportunities to critique other people’s work.  For one thing, you may need that person to give you feedback on your own stuff.  But it’s also important to recognize that taking the time to do this sort of thing–even if you’re not getting paid for it–may have valuable consequences for your own self-confidence and your own writing.

E for Effort

Despite what some of the trolls who come around here may think, I do not actually think everyone deserves a trophy.  I do not award A’s just for showing up to class, and I actually am a pretty tough grader.  That said, I believe that writing is a skill that requires substantial effort and practice, and I do not believe that the predominant grading paradigm does a good enough job of connecting effort and personal achievement.  As I’ve said before, students usually carry around the assumption that people get A’s on papers because they are “good writers,” and people get low C’s and D’s on papers because they are “bad writers,” while the space in between is populated by people who either believe they are good writers but the teacher just hates their style or that they are bad writers who just get lucky some times.

As Marzano, Pickering, and Pollack indicate, students attribute their success or failure at a particular task to one or some combination of four causes:  ability, effort, other people, and luck.

Three of these four beliefs ultimately inhibit achievement.  On the surface, a belief in ability seems relatively useful–if you believe you have ability, you can tackle anything.  Regardless of how much ability you think you have, however, there will inevitably be tasks for which you do not believe you have the requisite skill. […] Belief that other people are the primary cause of success also has drawbacks, particularly when an individual finds himself or herself alone.  Belief in luck has obvious disadvantages–what if your luck runs out? Belief in effort is clearly the most useful attribution.  If you believe that effort is the most important factor in achievement, you have a motivational tool that can apply to any situation.

I posted previously about a study that showed that children who are praised for ability alone are less likely to take risks and seek out challenges and more likely to collapse in the face of adversity than children who are praised for their hard work.  Marzano et. al. echo what Bronson and Merryman say about praise, but they also highlight the importance of teaching students about the relationship between personal achievement and effort.  While their techniques are aimed at (and are probably most likely to produce long term results with) young children, having students track effort and achievement in the college classroom seems like a relatively easy, efficient, and enormously beneficial way to reinforce the importance of effort.  Marzano et. al. recommend having students engage in periodic self-assessments, in which they grade themselves according to rubrics based on effort and achievement.  The effort one looks like this:

4–I worked on the task until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose or a solution was not immediately evident.  I viewed difficulties that arose as opportunities to strengthen my understanding.

3–I worked on the task until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose or a solution was no immediately evident.

2–I put some effort into the task, but I stopped working when difficulties arose.

1–I put very little effort into the task.

The achievement rubric (also on a 1-4 scale), looks like this:

4–I exceeded the objectives of the task or lesson.

3–I met the objectives of the task or lesson.

2–I met a few of the objectives of the task or lesson, but did not meet others.

1–I did not meet the objectives of the task or lesson.

The authors also stress the importance of having students set their own personal goals in the classroom, and even talks about a school that uses a “Personal Best” Honor Roll alongside its regular Honor Roll to recognize students who had met or exceeded their goals (established with the help of a teacher) for the semester along with the students who had earned high grades.  Next year, I plan to adapt these two methods to help my students set individual goals for the semester, predict the effort required to achieve those goals, and assess their progress throughout the semester.  Their first journal assignment for the semester will look like this:

–Being handout–

First Journal Entry

This assignment is designed to help you set goals for achievement and effort in this class.  The audience for your answers to the following questions are for you and you alone, so their is no need to try and come up with an answer you think I will like.

Achievement Goals–In a brief paragraph, describe what would need to happen in order for you to feel that you had experienced success in this class.  That could mean receiving a passing grade, getting an A, improving your writing according to some criteria that you define, or some other achievement measure that you come up with.

Effort Goals–In a few paragraphs, talk about what you will need to do in order to achieve those goals.  Try to be as specific as possible, though there are no strict guidelines for your answer.  You can talk about number of hours spent on each assignment, sticking to the recommended deadlines for first drafts, the number of revisions you will probably have to do to get the grade you desire, coming to office hours every other week, etc.

–End handout–

A few times during the semester (after the first paper is handed back, midterm, end of term, etc.), students would be asked to do self-assessments that refer back to these goals.

–Begin handout–

Self Assessment

The following assignment is designed to help you assess your progress in class thus far according to the objectives set by your instructor and the goals for effort and achievement that you described in your first journal entry.  For each item, circle the number next to the score that best describes your performance in class so far:

Achievement in the Course: score your performance in class based on the objectives described on the syllabus/on the assignment handouts.  You can factor in grades so far as you feel they reflect your performance at this point.

4–I have exceeded the objectives of the course.  I have kept up with the reading, turned in all assignments on a reasonable schedule, have completed at least one revision of a paper, and have been earning primarily A’s and B’s.

3–I have met the objectives of the course.  I have kept up with the reading, turned in most assignments on a reasonable schedule and have been earning primarily C’s and B’s.

2–I have met a few of the objectives of the course.  I have done some of the assigned readings, turned in some of the assignments whose deadlines have past and have earned at least a C.

1–I did not meet the objectives of the course.  I am behind on the reading and/or have not turned in any assignments.

Personal Achievement Goals: score your performance based on the “requirements for success” that you laid out in your first journal entry.  Ex.  If your goal was to get a B in the class, and you have earned B’s on all papers thus far, then you get a 3.

4–I am exceeding my personal goals for the semester.

3–I am meeting my personal goals for this semester

2–I have met some of my personal goals for this semester, but not others.

1–I have not met my personal goals for this semester.

Effort: Score your performance based on the effort goals you described on the first assignment.  If you aren’t sure how to score yourself, reference the longer descriptions that go along with each score.

4–I have exceeded my effort goals for this semester.  (I worked on each assignment until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working on the task even when difficulties arose, and I viewed those difficulties as opportunities to strengthen my understanding.  I sought help from my instructor or the writing center when I needed it.  I have turned in assignments according to the schedule that I, the student, established and have done the number of revisions I felt were necessary to exceed my personal achievement goals.)

3–I have met my effort goals for this semester.  (I worked on each assignment until it was completed.  I pushed myself to continue working even when difficulties arose.  I have turned in assignments according to the schedule I established and have done the number of revisions I felt were necessary to meet my personal achievement goals.)

2–I have met some of my effort goals for this semester.  (I put some effort into each assignment, but I stopped working when difficulties arose.  I have not been seeking help when I need it.  I have turned in some assignments on time, but still have some to complete.  I have not yet done the revisions I need to do in order to meet my personal achievement goals.)

1–I have not met my effort goals for this semester.  (I put little or no effort into each assignment. I have not been staying on schedule or seeking help in getting started.)

–End handout–

On Seeking Feedback

On Monday, I got a message from a prof who has been reading an article I’m working on asking if I had time to come in and talk about it. I had been waiting for several weeks for him to have time to look at it (he was getting his book off to the press at the time, so I guess he has an excuse), but honestly, the first thought that entered my head was something like “I wonder if I could schedule a dental appointment at the last minute.”

It isn’t all about ego. I have a thing about being the center of attention in any situation. When I was little, I used to cry when people sang “Happy Birthday” to me, so great was my fear of the external gaze and the implied scrutiny that comes with it. I’m past that frightful stage and have successfully gotten through an oral exam and a prospectus defense, but I still dread these kinds of meetings. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Despite the mewlings of my inner toddler, I showed up at his office that afternoon, and as they always tell you: “It wasn’t as bad as I expected.” In fact, because this professor was not an expert in some of the things I discussed in the essay (though he’s one of 3 people I know who is familiar with my primary text), this meeting was an excellent opportunity to think about audience and what concepts I will need to explain further depending on whether I send the article to a religion or lit crit journal. Because it’s about 2,000 words too long for submission to most journals, he was able to recommend some pretty obvious cuts that weren’t obvious to me when I was drafting. All in all, it was a productive meeting, and I walked out with my self-confidence boosted rather than shaken. So why my initial reluctance?

That’s an important question to think about both from a personal and pedagogical perspective. All writers need external feedback. Period. Even when a draft is just in an intermediate stage, all writers reach a point where they can no longer look at the project with anything approaching objectivity. Yet quite a few of us are reluctant to go get help. I need to remember my initial reaction to the prospect of this meeting whenever I complain about no one ever coming to office hours or making use of the Writing Center. It’s clearly not just laziness.

Is it culture or personality? Like a writer immersed in the final stages of draft preparation, I’m too much inside my own process to sort it out. Possibly, it has something to do with that whole Good and Bad Writers thing: on some level I and the otherwise strong students who avoid my office hours believe that good writers don’t have to seek help, that we should be able to anticipate all problems and churn out excellent drafts unassisted. An intellectual understanding of how ridiculous and false that is only helps a bit. Then you have my naturally retiring personality. I sort of identify with a student I had this past semester who would pre-schedule meetings during office hours and frame her requests with “I don’t want to bother you.” On some level, I think I also believe that my less excellent, less complete drafts are a bother or an imposition, or worse, that they will color this teacher/colleague’s perception of me. Again, as a teacher, I know this isn’t true. But it feels true much of the time.

All writing advice columns/manuals, especially those written for grad students, will tell you to just go do it anyway. You/I should, but I hate hearing that. Aside from Bird by Bird, I really hate writing advice columns and manuals. Like magazines marketed to women, I feel that they are saturated with shame, obligation, and desperation. It’s possible I’m projecting, but with their constant pronouncements about what you HAVE TO DO in order to get work done successfully, I think they bypass a lot of the internal work that you have to do on yourself in order to engage in certain frightening but necessary aspects of the process. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: as in therapy, writing is where you meet yourself, and sometimes the experience isn’t pleasant. But I do believe it is noble. It is righteous, and it is ultimately rewarding. But damn if it isn’t hard.

Tales from the Writing Center: The Engineering Group Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

Remember group projects? Yeah, I hated them too. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I am just guessing that you were probably the kid that wound up doing all the work, because everyone else was perfectly willing to allow that to happen and let’s face it, you’re a bit of a control freak. I get that–particularly for engineering and business majors, who are about to enter a workforce in which teamwork is sort of the norm–doing group projects is an important educational experience. To me, it seems like part of the educational experience is figuring out whether you are going to be one of the high functioning employees who routinely covers for your co-workers or one of the sponges. The best group project designs that I have seen have the work already pre-apportioned in some way (Person A does B, Person B does C, etc.) or contain some kind of mechanism for peer evaluation, but those are kind of rare.

You can tell that a group project has been well-designed when the entire group shows up in the writing center at once to talk about their work in a holistic fashion. Less encouraging is when each student comes in separately to have their pieces of the project checked–so you can’t really address continuity or flow. But at least everyone seems to be more or less doing their share. No, the real bummer is when one student is appointed as the “writer/editor” of the group (read: the one who does the majority of the work) and is therefore responsible for having the entire project “checked” (read: copyedited) by the writing center. In cases where students have divvied up sections and paragraphs, I tell The Editor that I will just go over her sections, since I’m really only supposed to address the work of the person in front of me, but it’s truly sad when The Editor can’t really tell me what’s his and what’s everyone else’s, because it’s sort of clear that everyone else decided they were “big picture” people or just did tables or something and let this kid do, you know, most of the project.

I suppose this isn’t a nightmare tutorial situation so much as it is a situation that always gives me sympathy shudders in solidarity with the go-getter in question. However, it also gives me pause to consider the status of writing in the egghead professions, those to which the self-labelled “bad writers” tend to gravitate because it seems unlikely that they will have to deal with comma splices and metaphors in those fields. They aren’t lazy, not by any stretch of the imagination(I know how hard it is to get into business or engineering at my university), they are just occasionally writing-phobic just as many humanities grad students I know get heart palpitations during tax time (despite the fact that most of us qualify for the 1040-EZ form), because MATH.  This is where I think our cultural tendency to separate the humanities and language arts into one category and the “hard sciences” into another does a serious disservice to our students. I know many middle aged adults who went into engineering or medicine or computer science because they hated English class only to find out that a good portion of their job consists of writing reports or articles. As one chemical engineer recently said to me, “Given what I do all day, I might as well have been an English major.” That’s not to say that we should be funneling all budding biochemists into English classes, just that in terms of “real skills” that have immediate application to on-the-job situations, writing is way up there on the list of “stuff I ought to be pretty comfortable with before I enter the work-force.” One of the reasons I think that one student winds up in front of me in the writing center, having been delegated total responsibility for writing up the project is because the other four have self-selected into the category of “was terrible at writing in high school and am not comfortable with this stuff.” But I’m generalizing pretty ferociously here, so perhaps that’s not most people’s experience. I just feel a bit bad for the kid that gets stuck with all of that work because he supposedly has a “natural gift” for it.

Multiple Assignments and Unlimited Revisions in a Writing Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Fall course offerings and came across an upper division undergraduate History class called “Religion and Popular Culture.” The content of the course looked fantastic, as the pop culture focus was on the Ben-Hur tradition (something I am currently researching), but in the part of the course description that lists assessment criteria, I found cause for concern:

Fifty percent of the course grade will be determined by class attendance and sustained and useful participation in class discussion. There will be no examinations as long as students do the assigned reading and sustain effective discussion. The other half of the course grade will be determined by the semester’s writing project. Students will write a paper of at least sixteen pages on a topic that traces a theme or development through all of the cultural manifestations of Ben-Hur over the past 125 pages. In preparing that paper they will write a brief prospectus, a longer prospectus, a first draft of the essay and then a revised draft. At all stages of the writing project leading to the final version, students’ work will be evaluated by the instructor and then re-written to reflect that evaluation.

I have said my piece about participation grades already. Basing half the entire course grade on participation seems to me to be a recipe for migraine headaches at the end of term, but this professor has been doing his thing for a long time, so I guess he has a method.

What I really want to talk about here is the logic of basing almost the entirety (given that most participation components are kind of bullshit) of a final course grade on a single written assignment and then marking it–as this course was–with a “Writing Flag.” Ok, from what I understand, “Writing Flag” courses are meant to teach undergraduates something about writing in that particular discipline. A good half of the student body tests out of the required freshman comp class here, so most writing instruction is inevitably happening in these Writing Flag courses that can be hosted by just about any department.

Now, a sixteen page research project in an upper division course is probably pretty reflective of the kind of writing one might do in the history field. At least, that’s been par for the course in all of the graduate seminars I’ve taken in the humanities and social sciences. My concern is that writing is something that one can only learn by practicing, by trial and error. Even though this particular class requires a good deal of preparatory work for the final paper (two prospectuses and a first draft), I would worry that students aren’t really getting a whole lot of practice at this particular kind of writing before it comes time to start working on this massive omnibus project.  They ought to have some lower stakes opportunities for figuring out what kinds of topics work, what counts as a thesis, how to structure and organize a smaller argument before doing a larger one, etc.

And this is a course being taught by a professor who I know to be excellent. I can see him doing quite a bit of writing instruction in the classroom, presenting samples, holding students hands through the process, giving ample feedback on proposals, etc. But there are a number of “Writing Flag” courses out there (enough that the chair of the Sophomore Literature committee warned all new instructors against following this example) that really do just demand a final draft of a huge paper on the final day of class and call that a writing course. I imagine these are the same professors who whine about the under-preparedness of college freshman (without a clue as to what the conditions are in public high school English departments) and refuse to teach “writing fundamentals” in any form whatsoever. I imagine that these are also the same professors who take off a point for every grammatical error.

Knew the material before you walked in the door and doesn't really need to be in this class.

My issue with this type of grading policy is that it does not encourage actual improvement. It’s designed to disproportionately reward students who came into the class with a lot of experience and strong skills while disproportionately punishing those with less experience and rougher skills. There’s a column at The Chronicle of Higher Education that I mostly find insufferable (for reasons I may talk about in another post) but that makes this point pretty well. Describing his first experience as a graduate student composition instructor, when he was asked to curb the trend toward grade inflation, the pseudonymous author says:

What Dr. Cathcart didn’t say, but that I realized afterward, was that Elite National U. did not want me to teach first-year students as much as sort them according to the abilities they brought with them to my classroom. Having been asked to halt the progress of Marty, a student with special needs, I had no desire to find out what happened to a TA who didn’t sort papers according to a bell-curve standard. After that day, my grading report sheets displayed lovely bell shapes.

Because first-year students’ success depended upon skills they had mastered before showing up on our campus, I suspected the same principle applied to teaching assistants.

Trying to teach writing without a strong emphasis on shorter, lower stakes assignments, regular instructor feedback, and opportunity for revision, without–in a word–PRACTICE built into the curriculum makes about as much sense as trying to teach a musical instrument via a lecture course. Imagine you are a student sitting in this hypothetical lecture course on, say, the piano, in which the professor waxes poetically about the piano itself, about the technique of great pianists past, even demonstrates his own remarkable skills and then asks everyone to learn a Sonata by the end of term without any opportunity for one-on-one instruction. The bald reality of the situation is that teaching writing–like learning an instrument–requires a great deal of back and forth between student and instructor and requires ample room for the student to take risks and mess up and then start over and try again. Teaching writing requires room for shitty first drafts.

So, while a long assignment may be desirable in your class–especially if you want your students to engage in focused research–it’s worthwhile to consider adding shorter assignments–ones that are unrelated to the larger project–to the syllabus. My students do a long paper on a text assigned in class at the end of the semester, but they also do three short analysis papers, all of which receive feedback from me.

And here’s the kicker: I allow all of my students to revise any assignment as many times as they want up to a certain date. I’m not exactly an innovator in this respect, but it’s worth mentioning here because I think this policy scares a lot of instructors, mostly because it seems like it would translate to a lot more work. It really doesn’t have to. I’m going to do a follow up post to this tomorrow (because this one is already really long) that will explain how the concept of unlimited revisions can actually drastically decrease the amount of time you spend commenting on individual drafts while actually increasing the amount of aggregate useful feedback your students get from you throughout the term. Other benefits for you include:

Fewer grade disputes: Students who know that they can revise their essays feel that they control their own destiny in your class. They are less likely to be shell shocked by a bad grade if they know they have the opportunity to change it, and that leads to less demoralization, less defensiveness, and the decreased likelihood that they will blame you for their poor performance. All of my nightmare, stalker grade grubbing incidents happened before I started allowing unlimited revisions.

Intrinsic motivation for submitting papers on time. I actually don’t even have a late policy in my class. I don’t need one. I tell students what my grading schedule is for each week, so if they want timely feedback (and I get papers back within 3 days, usually) that will allow them to revise the paper, they have to get it in by a certain time on a certain day. I love this policy for so many reasons. For one, it causes students (and therefore me) less stress, but mostly I love it because it flips the logic of due date incentives on its head by offering a reward for timely submission rather than a punishment for lateness. Also, it works.

More meaningful engagement with the writing process when revision is for a full grade replacement. Two years ago, I taught in the freshman writing program, which emphasized the revision process by requiring a revision of each of the three major essays. These revisions were recorded as a separate grade from the first draft. The problem with this approach is that most students would essentially just turn in the same paper, resigned to the fact that they were going to get more or less the same grade no matter what they did. I started seeing remarkable, thorough revisions when I offered students the opportunity to actually improve their grade by revising the paper. Furthermore, I no longer felt sketchy about encouraging revision by assigning grades strategically. Under the “separate grades” model, I felt like I needed to reward excellent first drafts (they do happen) with “A’s,” even though I knew that meant that they wouldn’t engage with the revision process. Now, I can give a strategic B+ here an there to encourage the strong students to make their papers even stronger, because they almost always do (and phooey to them if they let the opportunity slide).

The student’s final grade is ultimately a true reflection of where they are at the end of the semester rather than where they were at the beginning. And that, for me, is the true beauty of allowing unlimited revisions for a whole grade replacement, yet this seems to be a real psychological barrier for a certain type of pedagogue. The type of professor that the Chronicle essayist describes, seems to me to remain highly invested in pigeon-holing students into the “good writer/bad writer” categories. I’ve written before about why I think doing so is damaging. For one thing, it privileges students who came from the best high school programs, i.e. students who are inherently privileged already. For another thing, that’s not teaching. That’s sorting, and I find the investment of certain instructors (who often engage in this practice in the name of stamping out grade inflation) in engaging in this practice to be both cynical and discriminatory.

Not all students advance light-years in a single semester, but if you allow unlimited revisions and give some shorter, lower stakes assignments, you will often see a B- student start turning in A- work by the end of term. Not all students will revise every assignment, but almost all students will revise at least one. Not all students will learn to love writing, but some will actually start to think of themselves as people who are capable of writing, and for me, that’s good enough.

Hitting the Wall

This is me right now.

Embarrassing confession time: I’ve been having trouble with a non-blog related writing project for the past few weeks. Guys, it is so stupid. I’m trying to finish a damn conference paper. It is, for the most part, almost finished. The first two-thirds of it are pretty much locked.  The framework for the argument is laid out. I have quotes selected and notes ready to be revised into real copy waiting in a separate document. Basically, what I’ve been facing for the past several days is the task of laying down about 1000 words of close textual analysis and a brief conclusion. 1000 words. I can write 1000 words in half an hour. I did a 1000 word close analysis almost on a whim last week. I have, in total, written about 20,000 words on this blog just in the past 10 days or so. 1000 words is a wind sprint. Yet every time I sit down to finish this thing, nothing comes out but an incomprehensible stream of inane blather. Technically, those 1000 words are already typed out, but they are bad, bad, bad. Every time I look at that Word document, I want to scream. It makes me wish I actually drafted things long hand on paper so that I could start a trash can fire with all of the draft material I’ve sent into the nether of late, though that would probably also burn my house down.

So, the result is that I’m having nightmares and not sleeping well. This happens every once in a while, and whenever it does, I feel like I spend my days teetering on the edge of a panic attack. I try to distract myself with other reading and house cleaning and crap like that, but then I’ll read something infuriating on the internet or I’ll break a glass or something, and all the tension I’m feeling about not being able to finish that project comes bubbling to the surface but directed at something totally ridiculous. So, in the four days leading up this conference, I am either going to find a way to fix this paper, or I am going to have a meltdown.

I know why this is happening. It happened somewhere around Draft 5 of my dissertation prospectus last year. The shortest explanation is:  I desperately need a vacation. In the past six months, I have completed the following:

2 dissertation chapters
1 journal article
4 conference papers
1 fellowship proposal

All told, that comes out to about 75,000 words or over 150 double spaced pages of presentation/submission quality work. And that’s not even counting the reams of early draft material that got excised. About a third of that work was all done just in the month of April, so it’s probably not surprising that I’m tired. I’ve hit the wall with less under my belt than that before, so perhaps this is progress or something.

“Hitting the wall” has special meaning for marathon runners. The average trained runner burns about 100 calories per mile. The average body stores about 2,000 calories of ready-to-burn energy, which means that at about 20 miles (give or take), the marathon runner has reached the bitter end of their body’s reserves, and the body begins to revolt. Never having run more than 10 miles at time (and that was only once), I’m not entirely sure what this feels like, but I think you can approximate it if you’ve ever tried to do an intense workout on a totally empty stomach. I did that last week, and it ended in nausea and cramps and shaky hands and needing to guzzle a Dr. Pepper (sports drinks are gross) as soon as I got home. Long distance runners can try to delay the inevitable by–I kid you not–eating candy or taking hits off of those nasty energy gel packs.

I think this happens with writing or any other kind of creative work as well. Graduate students usually figure this out the first semester they sign up for three courses that all have 20+ page papers as their final project. One of those papers is going to suck, maybe two of them, depending on how hard your semester was. But at least one execrable seminar paper is pretty much guaranteed in that situation, because for some reason, most brains just can’t do much more than that. Undergraduates who wait until the last minute to write all of their papers figure this out too and wind up turning stuff in that’s incomplete or just not turning it in at all. Pacing yourself helps, but I think that no matter what, we eventually reach a point where our energy reserves, creativity-wise, are just sapped. When you reach that point, you’re just done. The magic won’t happen any more.

Of course, my fear is always that it will never come back, that I’m just through. Finished. Washed up. Cut off before my career could even get started. If writing (or drawing, or making music, or whatever creative work you do) is the source of your identity. If you know that your career prospects are in some very real way attached to it. (Yes. SENTENCE FRAGMENTS. DEAL WITH IT.) If you feel that writing is your major contribution to the world, then hitting the wall produces existential terror.

The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, captures this beautifully. Seriously, if you know the feeling I’ve described above, bookmark this clip and watch it whenever you hit that point. It will make you feel just a little bit better. In this scene from “Arctic Radar,” Toby Ziegler is sitting down to write the President’s second inaugural address after a long, harrowing campaign season. Watch how this scene is shot, with the Seal of the President looming ghost-like in the background to remind you just how high the stakes are. The other character here is a speech writer who has been sent by Toby’s deputy to help write the address, and Toby has given him an assignment to figure out if he’s up to the task. I like to think that Aaron Sorkin (or whoever) wrote this scene with the full knowledge of exactly how this feels, where–not for want of effort–“there’s just no blood going to it.”

Unfortunately, I can’t go to Atlantic City right now. I have to finish this paper, the conference being in four days and all. But afterward, I think it will be time to just take a couple of weeks. I can’t afford to go anywhere, but I can go to the book store and pick out something that just looks fun to read, preferably something with sexy people on the cover. I can re-watch the last three seasons of Mad Men. I can bake cookies. I can write long, rambling posts on this blog to remind myself that I still have words, even if I’m not able to hammer out that next dissertation chapter right away. And I can remind myself that it will, eventually, come back. It always has.

Taking a break has always been pretty hard for me. I think it’s just because we live in a culture that devalues rest, that shames us for being unproductive and wasting time. I actually think that rest can be a form of production. Taking a break from creative work is ultimately part of the invention process. It’s the carbo-loading period. It’s that day of rest in your week of athletic training, where you give your muscles time to repair themselves. Recently, Kate Harding confessed on her blog that her writing process includes a “talking about it in bars stage,” and that such a stage really is essential. Sometimes, that space in which you aren’t yet really producing anything is when the ideas really come, when problems with a project that seemed insurmountable suddenly get worked out.

It’s hard to trust in that process, though, because like I said, we live in a culture that tells us we can never stop, even for a second (academic writing advice columnists are pretty bad about this too). It’s easy to believe that if you take a break, you will never actually get back to the project itself, or never return to writing, that you will lie on the sofa for the rest of your life and never touch the keyboard again. Finding the size acceptance movement and intuitive eating, strangely, has helped me get over that feeling a bit. Intuitive eating teaches you that allowing yourself to have one french fry does not mean that you will just go ahead and eat ALL THE FRENCH FRIES IN THE WORLD. Taking a step back from writing for a couple of weeks does not mean that you will waste away, unproductively, for the rest of your life.

But, you know, deadlines exist. Sometimes you have to crank something out even though you know it’s not going to be your best work, so that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days, though I’ll likely also be venting in this blog about it. I’m not writing an inaugural address. I’ll be lucky if half a dozen people show up to hear this paper. The stakes are really not THAT high.

And vacation starts on Friday.

Grade Grubbing

‘Tis the season.

Two school years in a row from 2006-2008, I had what I would describe as nightmare experiences with grade grubbing. On college campuses, this is seriously some kind of disease. I’m not sure if it’s academic advisers or other students who encourage these kids to go back to their professors and TA’s begging to be bumped from an 87 to a 90, but this behavior seems to have achieved a level of social acceptability that I frankly don’t get. Both of these experiences included borderline harassing emails asking for grade changes, and it happened once while I was a TA and once when I was teaching my own courses. They were so stressful that I began to fear my inbox and had to enlist superiors to help me deal with it. Since then, I’ve tried heading the problem off at the pass. During the final week of each term, I give a really, really manipulative speech, usually some form of the following:

“I know that your grades are important to you, and for that reason they are important to me. I know that for some of you, a B means failure, and I assign that grade with full knowledge of how it will feel to you. I work very hard to ensure that grades are calculated accurately, and if there is any subjectivity in how I assign grades for individual assignments, I agonize about the fairness of what I’ve given you. I agonize over this, guys. I lose sleep. So recognize that if you come to me challenging the final grade you’ve received (which is a right you are free to exercise), you are essentially challenging my integrity.”

This usually wards off the casual grade grubbers, the ones who send me smarmy emails loaded with typos (I kid you not) trying to squeeze extra half-points out of me. Grade grubbing comes from a place of self-centeredness, but somehow being reminded that their instructor is a person–not a machine–a person who does, in fact, have considerable investment in the grades they assign, helps put things in perspective. Many of them think that it never hurts to ask, and my saying stuff like this lets them know that, yes, actually, it hurts a bit.

It may not stop the true sociopaths. I call them sociopaths because these kids are sort of like those serial killers featured on late night cable. They appear charming and socially adept early in the semester and work hard to develop a rapport with you. They flirt with you and make you think they are the best student ever to come in your classroom. Experience has taught be to be wary of these student. These are kids who are used to getting what they want from authority figures, especially those of the opposite gender. They see their good behavior and flattery as their end in some sketchy backroom agreement, and when their work starts getting C’s, they feel betrayed. By the end of the semester, they turn on you for not holding up your end of the bargain and become downright nasty if you refuse to give them what they want. I don’t know that it’s entirely these kids’ fault. At some point, this strategy (and I doubt they even know it’s a strategy), must have worked for them, and it’s astonishing to them when it doesn’t. They feel that by giving them less than they grade they have come to expect, you have rejected them, who they are, so to reduce cognitive dissonance, they’ll make you the problem.

Thankfully, these sorts of kids tend to be not very original when it comes to the arguments they deploy. Once you get a sense of the range of possibilities, you can come up with standard responses to each:

1) “But I never missed a day of class”
Ever since I adopted an attendance policy, I never had to hear this one again. Especially at big universities, where most classes are giant lectures and no one is checking who’s there from day to day, students start seeing their presence in class as going above and beyond the call of duty. I have a sister who was sort of like this. She used to just show up for exams. She graduated with a 4.0, and the dork in me hates her for it. Seriously though, if you have an attendance policy, it lets your students know that showing up is a minimum expectation, not something you get extra points for.

2) “I need an A to get into medical/law/business/graduate school”
The simple answer to this one is, “That is not at all my problem.” What would college look like if we assigned A’s based on who “needed” them the most? The logic of it falls apart pretty quick. A sick, sick part of me loves hearing this argument because it’s just so howl at the moon stupid that it’s almost entertaining.

3) “I’ll do an extra credit project”
This will vary by instructor, but it says on my syllabus, “no extra credit will be offered in this class.” My students are allowed unlimited revisions of every paper, though, so I haven’t heard this one in a long time. If you give your students enough opportunities to compensate for poor performance, I do think they feel a greater sense of control over the final outcome, and that’s partially what I think grade grubbing is about. It’s “something they can do” to improve the grade, not a reasonable thing, mind you, but it’s something.

4) “I am a straight-A student”
Usually this means that they got A’s all through high school or that they are getting A’s in other classes, and your class is the brick wall they’ve hit on their wind sprint to star-studentdom. This is an identity crisis for them, but it helps to note that their performance in other classes has no bearing on their performance in this one. The more insidious among them are implying that there is something wrong with you, that everyone else recognizes how fabulous they are but you don’t seem to get it. More on that in a second.

5) “It was just that one assignment”
Again, I allow unlimited revisions, so the “one bad assignment” argument doesn’t work very well, but like #4, this is a perspective problem. Many students want to be judged “holistically” (even the ones who think holistic grading is too subjective), according to their overall academic performance. They don’t see their final grade as consisting of multiple smaller grades, moments where you measure their progress. They may not recognize that there are some areas of academics where they are stronger and some where they are weaker and want a “pass” when it comes to stuff that isn’t as easy for them. I confront this by saying–both in my “final grade speech”–and in individual conversations, that we can talk about their performance on individual assignments, not overall performance. If they think they’ve been graded unfairly, they have to point to an specific assignment.

Truthfully though, I haven’t had a grade grubber in two years, ever since I began doing away with late policies and allowing for unlimited revisions (which I’ll talk about in a future post). Like I said, the more control you hand over to them, the freer everyone is. Like the kids in the Dweck experiment, students who feel that their score is somehow connected to effort rather than executing perfectly on the very first try a skill they came to the class to learn in the first place seem to be less whiny and entitled. Furthermore, the more transparent you are about your expectations, the less ammo they will have to throw back at you.

#6 on that list is “I just didn’t know what you wanted,” and that often does actually a problem with the instructor. I have had kids use this one defensively, when I didn’t think it was warranted, but my experience at the Undergraduate Writing Center has shown me that many instructors are appallingly vague about what they want, and most kids are terrified to ask for clarity. When one kid said this to me in 2008, I set up a special meeting with him and asked him to bring any examples of assignment prompts that he thought were more clear than mine, so that I could learn from him. He didn’t bring any examples to the meeting, but we did have a good conversation about what he wasn’t getting and how he could do better on the next assignment. Admitting that I might be part of the problem diffused the situation. The simple truth is that if students feel that they are heard, that you are listening, and that you genuinely care about them, they are less likely to turn on you. That’s the part that you, the instructor can control.

On Good and Bad Writers

Rebecca clutched her A paper enthusiastically and said, “Wow, I never really thought of myself as a good writer.”  I am always astonished at how often I hear something like this come out of the mouths of undergraduates.  Every semester, I distribute a first day survey that asks my new students, among other things, how they describe themselves as readers and writers, and most readily sort themselves into categories of “good” and “bad” writers.  Their identification with the label is clear and usually has very little predictive value in terms of the quality of the writing they do for me or their ultimate grade.  Many self-described “bad” writers do very well, while many “good” writers struggle.  That sense of identity does, however, seem to relate to feedback they have received in the past and the ways in which they have been taught to think about the writing process.

Most students seem to think I expect them to spit out a diamond on the first attempt and are both paralyzed and relieved by an approach to writing pedagogy that teaches that—as Anne Lamott famously said in Bird by Bird—most first drafts are shit, and all writing entails revision.  My training as an educator began in a Rhetoric and Writing program that strenuously emphasizes revision, but it is rather easy to insist that students accept a “process-oriented” approach to writing and engage in the process of rewriting and polishing without realizing that for the vast majority of us, there are huge psychological hurdles in the way, including our tendency to label ourselves as good and bad writers.

Rebecca’s A paper began quite humbly.  In fact, I do not grade the first draft of the first paper submitted in my lower division literature class precisely because of students like Rebecca.  The grade she would have gotten might have traumatized her beyond repair.  Asked to perform an analysis of an artifact with religious significance in accordance with one of the critical schools we had discussed in class, Rebecca produced a muddled and immature screed about why religious objections to tattoos were silly.  She had begun with good intentions, but the first draft didn’t really even meet the terms of the assignment, reading, as it did, more like a personal opinion (and not a well-articulated one) than a cogent analysis.  I considered telling her to choose an entirely different topic, but in a conversation after class, we came up with an idea that made this topic work.  That three page assignment went through three total rewrites, and ultimately she did a fourth in order to turn that short analysis into an extended research essay that described the history of religious tattoos as a practice and analyzed three modern examples of tattoos in light of that history.  She cited seven sources (she wasn’t actually required to cite any) without any prompting or leading from me and ultimately produced a document that taught me something I did not know and did so in an articulate, polished manner.  But until that point, Rebecca had never thought of herself as a good writer.

As a graduate student with a history of excellence in school, particularly in my chosen field of American Literature, I had always thought of myself as a good writer.  I used the past tense just now because that sense of identity has been challenged by the process of writing a dissertation and the seemingly endless cycles of getting feedback and rewriting, and it is particularly in this space of trying to grapple with my own writing demons that the links between my academic work and my teaching really seem to become one.  In so many ways, writing a dissertation is just like writing any other school assignment, except that some of us high-achievers who are accustomed to having the first thing we put on paper declared a diamond, it precipitates an identity crisis.  “Who am I,” we secretly wonder, “if I can no longer call myself a good writer?”

I have a hunch about why I, and others, experience this.  Writing a dissertation and all of the prospectuses and fellowship proposals and conference abstract and job letters and articles that go along with writing a dissertation present the first opportunities to write for an audience that knows and cares little about you or your topic.  “Good writers” often spend their academic lives from the time they were taught the alphabet figuring out what their primary and typically only audience wants, what sorts of ideas, words, sentence constructions, and references get them excited and coax from their pens the desired and expected “A.”  Such writing often occurs in the context of a pedagogical relationship in which clear roles have been negotiated:  “I am the ‘good student’ who always makes delightful comments in class and stays ahead in the reading and you are the A-generating machine charged with assisting me along the golden path of my Honors career.”  The people reading your fellowship proposal, or deciding whether or not to sit on your committee, or reviewing your article for publication, have no such relationship with you.  Furthermore, they haven’t been teaching you the very topic of your submitted piece.  So, as an advanced graduate writer, the bulk of your work is spent gauging what this unenlightened and potentially hostile audience might want , and that means getting lots and lots of feedback from people who will be honest and occasionally petty and then revising, revising, revising.  It would be wrong to say that I envy people like Rebecca, who expect very little of their writing and therefore experience no disappointment when they receive a mediocre grade and lukewarm feedback.

But all of us use the labels of “good” and “bad” writer for ego-protection, to convince ourselves that we don’t have to engage in that process because the outcome is predetermined by our own innate talents.  If you’re a bad writer, then there’s no point in trying very hard.  This just ain’t your thing.  If you’re a good writer, then you shouldn’t really have to try either, because you’re just that “good.”  When the bad writer receives a lower than desired grade, he attributes it to an inborn lack of talent and avoids writing whenever possible.  When the good writer receives the same grade, she feels that something in their world is terribly, terribly wrong and may attribute the event to some external force:  the teacher hates me, she just doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, this assignment was stupid, etc.

I’m envisioning two major purposes for this blog:

1)  To provide practical advice about writing to students and those who must write for their jobs but do not consider themselves to be professional writers.

2)  To engage in some meta-commentary about writing pedagogy, including how and why we tend to sort ourselves and our students into “good” and “bad” categories.

So, here we go.