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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  1. Thank you for continuing to use that red pen. I have seen dozens of students from the courses of those the not-so-willing-to-criticize professors in my social research methods classes. It is difficult to get students to define variables, think about the particular methodology that is going to result in the best data for a given hypothesis and to provide detailed written descriptions of those when students are challenged even to express things that are familiar to them in writing.

    I have suffered several poor student reviews for the social research methods class. Most recently one of the universities I teach for told me that my social research methods course was too hard. I compared my course to that of the author of our book. The book is prescribed by the school and the author an emeritus faculty of the same university. The work load in my course was nearly identical to that of the emeritus faculty. The difference: My course was taught in a 9 week format. The book author’s course was taught over 14 weeks. I made my findings known to the school. Although at the time I had taught social research methods for over 10 years, I haven’t been asked to teach it since.

    The problem lies not just with the students, but with all those other professors who decline to point out error and give credit for effortless work. Students get use to being passed, even given “A”s for mediocre work.

    The problem lies with the institutions as well. Colleges continue to place students’ desire for to accelerated curriculum above achievement. Terms get shorter, but in the age of instant information students expect that somehow they will still be able to achieve “A”s in 12 or even 18 units of course work in 9 weeks. Many institutions are now going to 8 week formats.

    I think the research will eventually bear out that the shorter the term the less information students comprehend and retain. That, of course, presumes that the future social science researchers are capable of formulating the hypothesis and writing a research proposal that adheres to the principles of scientific methodology and results in reliable conclusions.

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