High and Reasonable Expectations for Student Writing

Several weeks into the semester, I begin to increase some of my expectations for both how students submit their writing and the quality of their writing (as well as the effort they put into revision).

One student today emailed me a second rewrite of essay one. When I noticed the attached file was not saved as I have requested, I simply replied to the email, prompting him with the link on our course blog.

He quickly resubmitted with the file named properly, and I opened the rewrite to offer him feedback. I also opened the previous draft to review my comments guiding his newest version.

Immediately, I noticed that his opening was little changed—despite comments on the previous draft and a direct discussion of the opening in our recent conference. While I often struggle with my next move, I returned the two most recent drafts and noted that I could not respond fully unless he committed the appropriate effort to revising his work, attending to my comments and our strategies discussed in conferences.

My writing pedagogy is grounded in some foundational commitments to drafting, detailed feedback, careful revision, and multiple revisions. Since I refrain from grading student writing, do not average grades, and also require/allow multiple revisions, I give myself a great deal of leeway in terms of how hard I am on students.

There is a certain amount of tough love in my pedagogy, and that makes me very uncomfortable.

In all my teaching, I also seek to hold myself to higher standards than my students, while holding students to high and reasonable expectations.

So let me offer a frame of reference to anyone struggling with finding the balance between high and reasonable. [NOTE: I am always struggling.]

Recently, I have edited/co-edited three volumes—one on becoming and being a teacher, another on de-testing and de-grading schools and another on science fiction. Currently, I am co-editing two more volumes, one on education reform and one on James Baldwin.

Here are some lessons I have learned about high and reasonable expectations for student writers based on how professors and scholars submit, revise, and resubmit work for publication (all being offered as observations and not necessarily judgments):

  • Of about 100 chapters, about as many initial chapters were submitted late as on time. Most late submissions required the editors to send out emails requesting the status of the chapters. (Of 24 essays submitted for essay one this fall, only one was late in my first year seminar.)
  • All of the chapters submitted had surface feature problems ranging from typos to problems with conventional English. Common problems with conventions and style included misplaced words and phrases (dangling modifiers were frequent) and wordiness, but basic comma, quote mark, and document formatting issues were typical—not rare. Many files used return/tab to create block quotes and hanging indents—instead of using the ruler and menu features of Word (this is a nightmare for publishing since the return/tabs create havoc once revisions occur and when the camera-ready format is applied).
  • A substantial number of chapters had citation errors, typically associated with not complying with the requested style sheet (for example, when APA was requested, chapters were in MLA); many submissions also jumbled the style required. The list of bibliographies were more often than not a patchwork of several style sheets—spaces, commas, periods, capitalization, italics, line spacing, and such implemented and omitted without pattern.
  • Once chapters were read by the editors and returned with track changes and comments, chapter authors often resubmitted the documents with track changes and comments still embedded, despite a request for clean revised files.

And thus, when I become frustrated with how my students are turning in their work and their revisions, I remind myself of my colleagues; I then take a deep breath and patiently hold my students to high but reasonable expectations for students still learning to write and be scholars.