Student Writing: Old Habits Die Hard, and Other Clichés

As I’ve said before, critical thinking is important, but if the students can’t figure out how to put their ideas down on the page in a readable way, then no one will care if they thought critically. Even if I explain all of this to the students and they agree that learning methods is what they most desire, when we get into the actual methods work they balk. No one likes to be criticized; and no one wants their comfortable bad habits attacked. Worse, students don’t even realize they have bad habits. They believe that what they produce is good writing and previous teachers gave them poor grades for other reasons.

I had a young man approach me just a few weeks ago. He shook his head, clucked his tongue, and told me that I just didn’t like him and that’s why I was so hard on his fantastic work. His writing was a series of long-winded sentences that offered no subject, only layers and layers of modifying adverbs and adjectives. When I asked him to find me the subject of the sentences he couldn’t, of course. He was undaunted, though, by the evidence of his own work.

Denial is not new to me in these classes. A few years ago I had a student insist that he wasn’t plagiarizing, even though he had no citations at all anywhere in his writing. I’d given him the benefit of the doubt and explained unintentional plagiarism, but he was adamant that it wasn’t necessary to cite anywhere in the document as long as he had a Works Cited page. His reasoning was that no other teacher had said anything.

In another class, a young woman interrupted my lecture on thesis statements to inform me that I taught thesis statements all wrong. They don’t have to be arguable, she vehemently maintained. She was quite sure that they could simply be informative. When I explained that arguability, if nothing else, made for a more interesting thesis, and potentially a more interesting essay, she interrupted again to tell me that no other English teacher ever taught thesis statements this way, and her proof was that her brother had had a composition class the previous semester and his teacher didn’t, nor had any of her high school teachers. Irrefutable evidence, indeed.

Some might think that these types of incidents as absolute proof that students are rude and ungrateful. But I think it has more to do with how hard it is to let go of what we know, what we are comfortable with, even if that “what” doesn’t gain us positive results. Change really is hard, just as the cliché goes.

I initially believed that students would welcome my approach of teaching them the methods and tools they’d need for their required college writing. Over time, though, I’ve come to see that they long for their mixed metaphors, their clichés, and their idiomatic phrasings. They tell me they miss randomly and unconsciously injected figures of speech. They miss their colorful phrases that they believe liven up their sentences. I patiently explain that you can’t dress up bad, no matter how hard you try.

They also enjoy taking my lecture notes and telling me that I break the rules: I use contractions, I start sentences with FANBOYS, etc. Ah, but my lecture notes aren’t formal writing, I reply….every semester…..

There is much handholding that goes on in writing classes, and mine is no different. Being told that one has superfluous wording, poor grammar, troubled syntax, or any other corrective statement can be tough to endure. My class size dwindles as the assignments collect and the papers are returned without praise for what the student truly believed were legendary masterpieces. I’m eyeballing a stack right now, writing this blog instead of making the necessary corrections. Another group will find out this week that their brilliant and clever creations are only a C- grade at best. I feel bad for their lost innocence – now, where’s that red pen.

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