An anecdote about dealing with student frustration with the challenges of college writing

Alright, I’m letting it all hang out this week. I want to talk about one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve encountered teaching R&C. It’s going to sound gripe-y, but I assure it comes from a place of wanting my students to take responsibility for their thinking and their writing, and to exercise agency over the learning process as a whole.

Before collecting the final drafts of the first close reading papers of the semester, I asked students to write me a letter of reflection about their final draft. In the letter, I asked them to paraphrase the argument they were making, say what they felt good about, what they thought was challenging, and what they’d most like feedback on. While most of the reflections I received were sincere and insightful, I got one that was troubling. And this particular response was downright unsettling to me because it put the onus of responsibility on whether the paper was any good or not on me. The student wrote the following:

I feel pretty good about how I was able to revise and clarify my body
paragraphs after our discussion. However, one thing I found challenging
was incorporating our discussion on Friday about thesis structure into my
essay because you were unable to finish your explanation of what that should
                look like. (emphasis mine)

When I read this, I was like WHAAAAAAAAT??! Okay, so it’s my fault then if the thesis doesn’t hold, or isn’t making an argument??! After an initial moment of frustration (somewhat prolonged, I confess), I took many deep breaths and began to reflect on whether or not I’d tried my best to help this student move forward from the first to the final draft. And I decided to give myself a break. But at the same time I didn’t want to let this student off the hook. I felt that not responding to this comment would be an admission of responsibility. So I wrote in the margins to the student the following:

Apart from the extensive feedback I gave, and our conversation
in office hours, there are other resources at your disposal, including
the handouts on the subordinating v.s. additive style, the thesis
checklist, sample essays on the course website, and tutoring. Ultimately
the thesis is up to you. We can talk more in office hour if you’d like.

I have no idea if this student read my marginal response to the letter or no. If I could go back in time and re-write my response I’d probably add something about how writing is a process, that it takes time, patience, and practice to learn how to write a college-level paper, and that I’m expecting progress, not perfection.

At any rate, the point is that it’s hard to deal with student frustration that displaces responsibility for the quality of the writing from the student onto the instructor. It creates this very weird dynamic that’s difficult to address. What’s worse is that it can greatly inhibit student learning because the student can come to see the instructor as a capricious, impossible-to-please gate-keeper who prevents the student from the coveted ‘A’ paper, which comes to be the only measure of success. Ugh! Let’s talk, please.

3 thoughts on “An anecdote about dealing with student frustration with the challenges of college writing”

  1. Ugh, that’s rough. I do wonder if there’s some sort of differential in what’s expected of us as instructors (or in what we expect of ourselves) in writing and the humanities vs. those in other fields—sure, students might gripe in a bio class about material on the exam not having been discussed in lecture and only having been in the textbook, but I don’t think there tends to be the same expectation that students learn material on their own in our classes. (That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot this semester as I’ve moved from doing a ton of writing instruction in-class.)

    I wish I had any real advice beyond just commiseration, but I was especially struck by this last sentence:

    “What’s worse is that it can greatly inhibit student learning because the student can come to see the instructor as a capricious, impossible-to-please gate-keeper who prevents the student from the coveted ‘A’ paper, which comes to be the only measure of success.”

    Not to beat a drum whose skin is fast wearing thin or a definitively postmortem horse, but this is what I’ve found to be the single greatest advantage of (some form of) contract grading: it removes the possibility of an A paper altogether, and so helps to shift students’ focus from “what do I have to do to get an A” (or, even more inhibiting, the fear of getting a lower grade) to “what do I have to do to write better?” I know there’s one way to look at it as a pedagogical cop out, as—and perhaps I’m sensitive to the critique precisely because there’s a deal of truth to it—wanting so desperately to avoid being the “gatekeeper” that you just dismantle the gate. (But: why are we—or more to the point, our departments—invested in gates, anyway?)

    But I wonder if it might also allow us to be, if not gatekeepers, still “impossible-to-please” in a way that could be productive. Since there’s no A, no upper limit on quality created by an upper bound of qualitative categorization, no fetishized A to act as telos, I’ve found that my students seem more comfortable with the idea that their writing could always be better (as indeed could any piece of writing) and that it is always, in some sense, contingent and (as you suggest in your note additions!) in process.

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  2. This has so far been the most difficult thing for me– how to communicate to students that their writing can improve, that improvement takes work, and that it would be worthwhile to work towards improvement even if it didn’t affect their grade… which, of course, it does. Sometimes I get annoyed at myself for constantly reminding them of the resources at their disposal (which are, of course, listed on the course website) but when I get a paper from a student who clearly hasn’t taken advantage of the resources available, and hasn’t really tried to fulfill the goals of the assignment, I also get frustrated.

    I think another danger here is that I come to feel personally responsible for my students’ success or failure. If my students’ writing improves, I think, “I am a fantastic instructor and should win all the awards.” If it doesn’t, or if they seem to be confused about something (like thesis statements) that we talked about in class, then I feel as though I’ve failed at my job. In other words, I think that students aren’t the only ones who “displace responsibility for the quality of the writing from the student onto the instructor”– sometimes we do it to ourselves.

    I really appreciated Max’s comment about contract grading, but since I’m not using contract grading for my course this year I have a question– is there any way, without using contract grading throughout the course, to grade papers in a way that both is fair to students and encourages improvement? If we spend a whole class session discussing thesis statements, and provide a handout on how to write thesis statements, and students still turn in a paper without a thesis statement… how do we grade that?

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  3. Tara, I know the feeling of providing students with what I felt was plenty of information to prepare for and complete an assignment, only to get the type of comment you received. Unfortunately, the letter grade is the prize for most students, and there is not much we can do about their thinking and goals for that.
    Whether the student read your notes is another question. I find that many of my students ask me questions that I answered (before they asked) in my feedback on their assignments. It seems more and more that students don’t read our comments – or they don’t read all of them. It’s frustrating, for sure.

    And, I’m not sure if what Max offers regarding contract grading will avoid the issue of the coveted A, but my sense is that no matter what, students will come up with a reason to shift blame on us or someone or something else if they don’t receive the A that they so desperately desire. I’m very interested in trying out the contract grading.

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