Let’s never read student writing again. In fact, let’s not even talk about it. Not because student writing is dull or unworthy of serious readers. No, let’s stop talking about student writing because it doesn’t exist—or at any rate, shouldn’t exist.
In my time as a writing instructor—I started as a writing center tutor in 2002—I’ve learned that the surest way to belittle a writer’s effort is to stick “student” in front of the “writing.” The writer might be a student, but that doesn’t mean her writing is unschooled.
Dispensing with this adjective is an old idea. The writing instructor Peter Elbow made a similar argument in the late seventies. In the nineties, the academy openly argued over the question, with people like David Bartholomae arguing that students had to apprentice before they earned the title of “writer.”
I’m with Elbow on this matter. Rather than trying to improve “student” writing—which, by definition, can never be anything but amateurish—teachers will find more traction in treating students like writers and demanding students act like writers, even in courses where writing isn’t the primary subject.
I don’t mean to suggest that calling students “students” is slanderous. It isn’t. But the word is sometimes used in the derogatory form. Attitude influences outcomes. If students consider themselves merely students working on projects that are just for school, and if faculty look at their students as only students and their work as school work rather than real work, students will respond by acting like students—possibly the worst kind of students.
Admittedly, I write from a privileged position. I teach in a writing program at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and most of my students want to get out from under the label of “student” writer as quickly as possible. The faculty facilitates this shift in perspectives from day one, when we circulate the “Special Rules of Engagement,” a list of behaviors expected of writers in the class. The rules of the class demand that writers attend every class, meet deadlines, show up on time, and disconnect from phones and social media while in class (Allen, n.d.). What’s important about these rules—and this applies in any course where the teacher assigns writing—is that they impart on students an attitude of respect toward their work, their audiences, and themselves. For lack of a better word, these rules encourage young writers to behave as professionals, not students, and that’s relevant across the curriculum.
The writing classroom is well-suited to professional standards because professional standards support learning in the writing class. We treat deadlines as sacrosanct because that’s what professionals do—and because missing deadlines impedes learning. In the writing workshop, we power down distracting technology and give our full attention to the reader out of respect—and so we can listen and practice giving feedback. We assign enough writing to keep students writing every day because professional writers write every day—and because daily practice leads to understanding and mastery of course concepts.
Practice leads to mastery and fluency. To develop competency leading to mastery, I ask writers in one of my classes to free-write for 12 minutes a day, every day. In every class, I assign reading responses, project deadlines, and exercises designed to teach the technical aspects of prose—all to keep them writing every day. In addition to the course work, I encourage writers to keep a diary, write a blog, or trade stories with one another. Whatever it takes to hit that daily word count
In the writing classroom this makes sense. Writers need to write every day to develop. Even though developing writing skills may not be the main agenda in other courses, writing every day can promote learning in any course. Students can deepen their understanding of course content by looking at notes from the previous day and writing a short summary of what they learned. They can look at an assignment and write what they think the teacher wants, share their writing and discuss their impressions with their peers and teacher, and set out with a clearer understanding of the assignment’s objectives. They can write tentative answers to questions, write questions they’d like to have answered, respond to scenarios, generate hypotheses, predict results. Writing can play an important role in learning across the curriculum. Writing aids in retention. It clarifies understanding. More important, when we write, we put our thinking on to the page where we, and others, can examine our thoughts, test them for truth, and revise our thinking through the act of revising our writing. This is learning.
The point of daily writing isn’t to produce work for the teacher. In fact, some writing I only grade for completion, and I don’t read early drafts unless a writer asks. The point is to instill habits that promote the idea that writing is a way to learn. In my courses, daily writing instills the habits of the professional writer and brings them into the lifestyle that writers live.
This principle of daily writing practice translates well into other kinds of learning. Habit-making has utility in other disciplines. Memory drills, daily readings, regular on-campus meetings, and systematic, structured study build a learning environment in the class and at home. Daily practice has another benefit: it structures the students’ lives and ushers them into a discipline and a profession.
One of the major strengths of portfolio grading—a procedure where teachers only grade final drafts at the end of semester—is that it gives students space to work through ideas without having those early ideas graded. Nobody should judge a writer’s first draft, yet that’s what we often do to our students. Portfolio evaluation forces new writers to hit the deadline—an essential lesson in the writing class—but gives them time to refine their work so that they put their best work forward for evaluation, not their first effort. By judging a student’s best effort, teachers can rightly hold writing to a high standard.
Portfolio evaluation has other advantages. First, it gives students time to master course concepts. With deep writing should come deep understanding. And second, portfolio evaluation privileges hard work over raw talent. Students who put in the hours often prove themselves as capable as writers who nail the first draft. I’m never surprised to see them outperform the hotshots who put too much trust in their gifts.
The draft system built into portfolio grading allows a writer to rework the same material many times and to integrate this learning into the drafts of future assignments. In my classes, writers work on multiple assignments, reading responses, and technical exercises at the same time. I check drafts for completion and follow up with writers who miss deadlines, but I don't partition assignments—that is, I don't divide up writing assignments and grade every part: the outline, the proposed list of references, the first draft, and so on. Partitioning assignments can communicate the wrong ideas about the writing process—that the parts are distinct from other parts, and that once a part is “done” it requires no attention. Portfolio grading and draft systems assume a more holistic approach, one that sees writing as a complex process that leads to understanding, and not as a linear set of measured, compartmentalized milestones.
Portfolio evaluation and draft work systems are not new. Indeed, many disciplines already ask students to submit and revise drafts, in part because draft systems aid learning, and to teach students that revision is as important to the writing process as the first draft. Instructors who shy away from portfolio evaluation should experiment again. Draft systems force writers to subject their writing to a methodical, iterative process that reinforces course concepts and produces writing worth reading—and not first draft “student” writing.
Disciplines where writing forms the core of the learning should encourage students to publish their work in campus newspapers and blogs, and departments should develop publishing opportunities, such as undergraduate departmental journals, where students can reach an audience. For most students, publishing is a distant dream, an honor reserved for other, better writers. Helping students to publish will help legitimize their work. This isn't student writing, publishing says, it is writing that garners a real audience.
Publishing is a major undertaking for a department, so consider it a long-term goal. In the interim, teachers can showcase and celebrate the writing in their classes by sharing it with students. Publish A-level work on course websites and course readers, ask students to read excerpts of exceptional work aloud to the class, and share some of the best work with other faculty members. A half-day symposium where students read their writing to an audience of their peers and faculty members will help students see themselves as writers.
In the courses I teach I’ve seen the motivating power of publishing that emerges in the classroom. At UTM, we publish peer model texts regularly, as well as a range of journals. These locally-produced texts build a community of writers and readers. As importantly, they tell new writers to take writing seriously, because we, your readers, take you seriously.
If we want to motivate students, let’s not relegate our students to “student” writing. That’s a basement many will never escape from. So, let’s stop calling students “student writers.” They are already writers. If new writers struggle, call them writers. Say it until they become it.
Allen, G. (n.d). Professional writing course—Special rules of engagement. [Class handout]. Expressive Writing is Located in Ontario: University of Toronto Mississauga, WRI203.
Robert Grant Price, PhD, is a lecturer in the Professional Writing and Communication Program at the University of Toronto Mississauga.