Varieties of Undergraduate Writing: A Cautionary Tale – by Neil Baldwin

The twenty-four students in my theatre class were poised to hand in their second required paper of the semester, a three-page, double-spaced critique of a play recently performed on campus. 

I asked if anyone in the room would like to volunteer to read their essay aloud to the group.  No hands went up; there was palpable silence.

So I voiced a question that I said I had been curious about for quite some time, wondering what their methodologies were for starting to write a paper…how did they go about it…what kind of regimen or routine, if any, did they maintain? What happened first, then second, etc, etc, etc? 

Everybody wanted to talk about that! Here is a selection of responses:

–          I go to my older sister’s house. She’s a professor at a community college, and she keeps an eye on me, and turns off the TV if she catches me sneaking a look.

–          I start by letting all of my thoughts flow out onto the computer. I write and write and write until I have nothing left in my head, then I go back and cut and cut and cut.

–          I work hard at one paragraph until I am positive it is perfect, and only then do I move on to the next. It could take me hours to get past that first paragraph.

–          I write the subject of the paper in big letters at the top of the page so I never forget what I am supposed to be writing about or go off topic, because that’s a bad thing to do.

–          I watch TV and listen to music and enjoy myself for a while, like giving myself a “reward” before I begin, do something nice, and get the enjoyment out of the way and then I can start writing.

–          It is so hard for me to concentrate because I have so much flying around in my head all the time, so I need to sit down and write the entire thing all at once, because if I “sleep on it” or do a rough draft and come back the next day, my ideas are gone – disappeared.

–          If the paper is due on a Monday, I start with a free-writing draft on the preceding Wednesday and then purposefully procrastinate until Sunday night, so I feel the intense pressure to get it done.

–          If the paper is due in class at 10:00 on Monday morning, I wait until 7:00 am on Monday morning to write it.

–          I go to the Library with a bunch of my friends from the class, at midnight, and we sit around the table, and talk about the assignment, until one person says something that inspires me, and then I move to another table, and write the whole thing straight through. I do not revise, because I am lazy.

–          I am “old school.” I write everything out by hand on lined paper, and then when I am ready to write the real thing, I copy it from my handwritten notes onto the computer; but most of the final version is totally different than the handwritten one.

–          I am a Facebook addict, so I have to disconnect from the Web before I can even think of starting my paper, and while I am writing, I need to force myself to focus on the subject. I make my roommate keep watch over me so I do not “cheat” and sneak back online.

I asked the class if anybody thought writing was supposed to be “easy.” No hands were raised.

I asked them if they prefer to write a paper for which (1) the subject is explicitly assigned and spelled-out; or (2) one that allows them to express their personal opinions.  The response was unanimously in favor of option (2).

I asked them what kind of writing experiences they had had in high school. There was a widespread groan. Without using high school as a convenient scapegoat, I asked why they reacted that way.

Students replied that in high school, they were often told they were “wrong,” that the teacher “wanted” a paper submitted in “a certain way,” and that was “the only way,” otherwise they “got an F.”  

Several students insisted they graduated from high school convinced they “were not very good writers” or “had never been very good at writing.” [Note: I told them I never wanted to hear those words coming out of anybody’s mouth ever again.] 

We then talked about College Writing, a course required for all entering students. They seemed begrudgingly accepting of this course because, although the instructors “made” them use “MLA Style” and adhere to structural “rules,” the teachers also helped them conscientiously through successive drafts of papers, showing the students what mistakes were being made, and gave them “feedback.”  [They really like feedback.] 

However, many chimed in that the subject-matter of the papers in College Writing was often driven by the teachers’ personal interests and/or agendas, such as “politics” or “problems in society,” as opposed to “relatable” [their word] subjects of more interest to them. 

I emphasized to the class that each and every person who had spoken up in the previous forty-five minutes with regard to their way of writing a paper had offered a unique method — did they realize that no two methods in the entire class were the same? 

Then the period was over and they packed their bags and left. 

At the risk of stating the obvious — although I have reported these selected, subjective, unscientific anecdotes from only one classroom on one day in the sprawling, mammoth life of Montclair State University — I believe this brief, metaphorical report broaches a big cognitive challenge.

After decades in the classroom, it is becoming very difficult for me to continue to accept the traditional definition of teaching as conveying a unified “subject” to a generic “class.” We are dealing with multiple, radically-divergent personalities; young people whose born-digital brains fire synapses in different ways than ours.  As college teachers, we cannot be certain that what we say to our students is being processed in a manner true to the “information” or “course material” we believe we are “transmitting.” 

Rather, it feels these days as if learning how to learn is more important than learning what to learn.

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1 Comment »

  • Kathleen Hulser says:

    Fruitful for others to read your report from the front lines of writing, and I commend your asking the right question at the outset!

    What’s odd is no one mentions any encounters with subject matter, evidence, a topic, the play…. all the struggle is internal, or related to distractions (TV, Facebook, online…). So “the play’s not the thing”?

    My reading of your cognitive findings suggests the disconnect between professor concerns and the student issue. From the teaching perspective, we fret about conveying content. But this sample reveals that the students are mostly battling in their own minds over saying something, how to say it — regardless of content.
    It’s all about psychology, not information.


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