No Fancy Name
Friday, May 27, 2005
more about completing college-level sentences
In a short post below, I made a remark about an instruction on one of my finals: "Write in complete sentences organized into coherent paragraphs." In the comments, both Caleb and David expressed frustration about what to do when students can't complete college-level sentences. I certainly don't have an answer. But I know I'll need to figure out an answer eventually, and I know I must do my part to fix the problem, whenever possible.

In one of his comments, Caleb said "Many of the students in the particular class I'm talking about are middle-aged continuing ed students--mostly staff members at the University who are able to take night classes towards an undergraduate degree. They are some of the most motivated students I have ever had, but many of them cannot write at the college level" and then asked "Is it really my job to penalize them severely?" My current thought is this: yes, with an asterisk. I say "current thought" because obviously I have not had the experiences in academia that all of you (profs) have had. I've just been a student, although recently I've been a student who tried to help her peers with this very issue.

A lot of students at my current school fit the middle-aged continuing-ed mold. But even if they're taking a non-traditional path toward a degree, they are required to meet the same general ed requirements as other students. For upper-level courses that means they'll have taken three composition-like classes, and they'll have passed the Writing Skills Test (72 questions about grammar and the like, plus answering an essay question). In other words, they should know how to write in complete sentences. But remarkably enough, I've seen more than a few people fail to write a decent essay in literature courses. I've also seen these people passed on through, which gives them a false sense of their abilities. In turn, when they arrive in a course such as the AmNovel course I just took, with a very good prof with high academic standards, they fail miserably and blame the teacher. It's not the fault of the teacher, though—it's the fault of the system that let them get to that point in the first place.

I admit, I don't have the foggiest idea how people learn to write. I don't even know how I learned to write, such as I do. Whatever people learn how to do in high school, I don't know because I didn't go. I took one composition course in college, but it was a sort of transition-to-college-composition course for the program I was in, and it didn't count on my transcript so I never really went to it. I never took the actual for-credit composition courses...I just sort of weaseled my way into the literature courses and no one ever noticed I never took comp (or that I took all the classes out of order, heh). My only vivid memory of being taught how to write was in the history courses I took, with one particular prof. She was hard core with regards to argument, structure, and grammar, and I really do owe my skills (such as they are) to her. In fact, I'm reading her book right now, The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony, and the similarities between our writing styles are visible (to me, at least). Style, that is, not content. The other person who helped teach me to write was my philosophy prof at the same school. These were (are still, I'm assuming) really great teachers.

But not everyone has the luxury of going to a school with nine hundred students (total) and dropping in for one-on-one meetings with faculty who always have time for "teaching moments." So, what's to be done with the people who manage to slide through doing mediocre work, thinking they're just fine, and then all of a sudden have to be told not to forget to write in complete sentences? In my AmNovel class, for instance, everyone hated the prof—except me. They thought she was a great lecturer, very good at bringing everyone into the discussion, but had "unreasonable expectations" with regards to written work. I didn't think that at all. I thought she had standards appropriate for an upper-level literature class, and every single thing she wrote on my journals and papers was valid and much appreciated. Contrary to popular belief (of the students in the class), I didn't get an A on everything. I got a C on a journal because I completely missed the point. After I read her comments, I was astonished that I got a C. I would have given myself an F for failure to figure out the point. But other students would get Bs and Cs and even Ds and immediately say "but I've always gotten As on papers in other classes." "Fine and dandy," I would say to them when they complained, "what did she say when you went to clarify her comments on your paper?" No one went to get clarification, for the entire semester. They just kept bitching about how they didn't understand why they got [x] grade. I offered to help. I said I'd read their papers first, give them tips and so forth. No one took me up on it, really...they'd show me their papers right before they handed them in and in my head I would think "this is a C paper." But still, no one went to the prof or to the writing center or to anyone who was willing to help them learn.

It's a good thing this is just a blog post and not an essay, because I'd give myself a low grade for lack of thesis and shoddy structure. I'm sure the grammar is a mess, too. But the question still remains: how much do you penalize people in courses when complete sentences (and non-bulleted papers) are assumed but aren't the reality? For me, the question is "how do you help your peers in the MA program to write actual scholarly essays, not book reports?

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