“Process” and the Writing-Intensive Course

Over at Confessions of a Community College Dean, Dean Dad gets a conversation rolling when he takes on the subject of writing-across-the-curriculum initiatives that ask professors of so-called “content” courses (so called as if the skill of writing were not itself “content”) to make their courses writing-intensive.

Since the current received wisdom in teaching writing says that we must make writing a recursive process—i.e., force students to show us that they’re outlining and drafting, and then put them through the meaningless exercise of peer-review—this presents a difficulty. To fill this particular bill, someone who is teaching an actual subject rather than the skill of writing per se will have to sacrifice hours of class time to this “process.”

My response to Dean Dad’s question—how does one make a “content” course writing-intensive?—was to suggest that one assign a lengthy term paper and be done with it. There really is no point in making a psychology or a chemistry student jump through the “process” hoops. This is something she or he should have learn in freshman comp, and so the how-to of the alleged “process” should not have to be repeated in every course the kid takes.

Meanwhile, over in the freshman comp classroom, I’ve about given up on drafting and peer reviewing. Following the lead of some of my full-time colleagues, this semester I cut those time-wasters down to the bare minimum: a draft for one of the required papers (four required in 101; three in 102), and study groups for on-your-own peer review.

Peer review is the blind leading the blind. If you don’t know anything about how to write a decent paper, how on earth can you advise someone else on the same? My students are often just a step above illiterate. Those who are good are pretty darned good, and they do not want to waste their time trying to instruct people who couldn’t learn how to do the job in 13 years of K-12 schooling. Even a freshman can recognize an exercise in futility.

I do believe that one reason students come to us barely able to spell their own names is that they have not been asked to write in substantive K-12 and lower-division courses. When I asked my students, earlier this semester, who had written a 2,500-word paper before, three of 25 in one section and none in the other answered in the affirmative.

That is ridiculous. My cohort (I graduated with a BA in 1966) started writing eight- to ten-page source-based papers in junior high school, and I never took an undergraduate course in any subject, including the hard sciences, that did not require a term paper. As high-school graduates’ writing grew weaker and harder for a college professor to tolerate reading, apparently faculty responded by deciding not to make writing assignments.

Until this spring, I trotted my students to the computer lab and made them write and post drafts for each paper; then trotted them over there again and made them post peer reviews. I read all of these and commented upon them in detail, providing copious advice on how to improve the final version.

Their final papers usually showed no significant improvement over the drafts. Often students would simply copy a draft and paste it into a new Word file. Sometimes they paid so little attention to this process that they pasted their instructor’s (blithely ignored) advice into the “final” paper, too.

Who has time or energy to waste on this nonsense? Especially when that time earns something less than minimum wage?

This semester I assigned one draft, and only one draft. This was for the term’s first assignment.

I graded the draft exactly as I would have scored it if it were a final paper, keeping the assessment free of grade inflation, and explained specifically what they needed to do to achieve a higher grade. After the students recovered from shock, they turned in fairly creditable papers.

No further drafts were required for the remaining papers. I informed classmates that the rest of the course’s assignments would be graded according to the same rubrics used for the first paper, and they would be expected to turn in a polished final draft, without my having to review early drafts.

The second set of 750-word papers elicited a fairly normal grading curve. Overall, without benefit of the drafting and peer-reviewing hoop-jumps, the quality of their papers was  the same as that of student papers put through the “process.”

If anything, they were somewhat better. They certainly were no worse.

For the long, required 2,500-word argumentation paper, we had oral reports describing their theses and detailing their research progress, followed by one-on-one conferences for which students were asked to bring specific materials and during which I advised them on ways to develop their topics. I have yet to see the products—they’re due on Monday. But I’ll be surprised if they’re not just about the same as papers produced by prior semesters’ cohorts who were jumped through the “process” hoops.

1 Comment

  • Budget Glamorous

    April 23, 2012 at 10:12 am Reply

    I have guided peer review sessions (we’re not allowed to skip peer review, at least for 101) where I write out questions/items the first peer reviewer reads to answer and then different criteria for the second peer reviewer to search for. I usually put the first one on bigger content issues, like being able to clearly identify the thesis statement, the audience for which the paper is written and suchlike. Reviewer two deals with things like finding (and identifying) logical fallacies, checking for proper citation, etc. I tie their peer reviewing comments to their participation grade.

    It is still, in many ways, like the blind leading the blind. The main values I see in this method are at least they come away knowing what *I’m* going to be looking for later, and it keeps them from making pointless comments. Even still, there are those who leave two or three word comments instead of complete sentences! Some students don’t want to do anything, and no amount of special prep will solve that problem.

    I am *definitely* getting sick of all the extra attention I’ve been giving four sections’ worth of students, only to have a good half of them ignore me completely.

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