A Tall Order

In the more than enough that has been said about Arum and Roksa’s study of learning in college, one welcome “finding” has gone almost undetected.[1] It is that students’ ability to “engage in critical thinking”  improves if they are exposed to at least one “reading-intensive course” and one “writing-intensive course” during the prior semester. The surprise is not that some students are improving against the prevailing trend. Rather, it is that this “finding” needs detecting at all.  How could we have reached the point of needing “research” to remind us of the good that can come of the careful review of students’ writing by their teachers? I think the answer is that we have retreated from recognizing and confronting the difficulty that the work entails on both student and teacher.

The first difficulty a student faces in writing instruction is a corollary of Adam’s curse which says that writing, like other labors, is laborious. Stated this way, it should be obvious; but it is shocking how many students have no idea that to make their writing good, they must work at it. That means multiple drafts. It means writing ahead of time, leaving the writing alone, and coming back to it. It means no autopiloted or semiconsciously produced writing. In more cases than not, it means no multitasking. Most difficult of all, perhaps, is the need to submit it to a teacher for judgment.

“Comments are intensely and painfully personal, being the responses that an alert reader would feel if he were encountering the essay in print. The result is that even the best students feel abashed, if not actually resentful. To which one should only say that they should resent the neglect in which all their previous teachers have left them[2].” Part of that neglect is due to the widespread belief that “peer editing” is enough to improve students’ writing. A moment’s thought will dispel that silly fiction: do students (or their parents) accept peer athletic coaching or peer doctoring? Why then should they believe that a classmate, who knows how to write no better than they, will be able to offer steady guidance? How can supposedly sensible people expect that same classmate to deliver an explicit but thoughtful and confidential reproof? I don’t say that a student’s classmates can teach him nothing, but it’s a long way from that to saying that they can teach him all or most of what he needs to know.

This view of the teacher’s vital place jibes precisely with Arun and Roksa’s other finding about learning in college: students are more likely to learn to think when they have teachers with high expectations. To expect much means more than to set big reading and writing loads that can be counterfeited or ignored. The teacher who really means business in a “writing-intensive” course will go over a student’s writing as a critic.

This means more than correcting grammar and spelling, which Barzun says is of secondary importance to examining words and tone. An imperfect knowledge of word usage and a tin ear for tone do not yield the wiggly green lines of MS Word® or respond to grading by machine[3]. Here is where the difficulty for the teacher comes in. It is threefold: being alive to every word a student says requires painstaking attention, making comments is a slog, and toeing the line between letting a student off too easily and beating him down takes “perpetual discretion.”  It means more than writing “v. good A,” “awk,” or “wc”: “images are changed, synonyms proposed, and bad sentences recast, sometimes in alternative ways, in order to show precisely how the original misleads and how clarity is to be reached.” This learned, Strunk and White may follow.

A tall order! The student must be diligent and receptive, ready to retain and build on what has been practiced and understood. He should have been encouraged in these virtues first by his parents and then by his prior teachers, none of whom should have made the way false or easy by excuses or special pleas. It should then go without saying that schools and colleges must work for the establishment of the needed relationship between student and teacher. A few principles follow:

1.     Use people, not machines, to teach and to grade writing in a “writing-intensive” course.

2.     Use people to teach “reading-intensive” courses in which the students’ understanding is confirmed and probed by Socratic questioning.

3.     Ensure that teachers understand their duties, including that teaching is a primary responsibility.

4.     Ensure that students understand their duties, including the acceptance of advice, correction, and other coaching as well as didactic instruction.

4.     Minimize high-stakes testing that can be gamed, and do not attach consequential decision-making to test results.

5.     Do not attach retention, promotion and tenure decisions to students’ ratings of their teachers.

This last needs some explanation. It is hard to believe that perverse consequences were not anticipated to the widespread practice by colleges of making decisions to retain or promote teachers based on students’ ratings of them. If Mommy’s little instrumentalist is at college not to become acquainted and fall in love with learning but to get a meal ticket, he or she will probably want not the most thorough but the easiest credential possible. Hence the phenomenon of students’ giving bad ratings to teachers who make “excessive demands” (i.e., any rigorous demands at all). At many of these colleges the ratings are followed by firings. The teachers who survive this “rating” system are the ones who collaborate in the corruption of students by winks and nods at what they are doing.

And what about the students treated thus? If their parents and their prior teachers have failed them, if Mom & Dad make excuses for them, if they themselves have not cultivated the discipline of work, if they do not know how to read carefully, if they have not learned how to write effectively, and if they think that a teacher who taxes them with work and responsibility is an enemy instead of an ally, what will become of them?

[1] But not entirely: I caught it in this review in The Journal of Higher Education

[2] Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America, Liberty Press edition, p. 70

[3] See my last posting for a discussion of that bad business.


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