June 29, 2009

 The $5,000 Approach to Teaching Writing


 Almost every day I hear my fellow professors complain about their students' poor writing on papers and tests. The papers lack depth, my colleagues say, and reflect a lack of commitment to good writing. Having read countless examples of such sloppy college writing over the past two decades myself, I've identified the main cause. Weak writing has little to do with students' innate writing ability, even less with how much time they spend working on their papers, and less yet with how ill-prepared they are to do college-level work.

 The real problem is this: Students know that professors must read their papers, no matter how poorly they might be written, how irrelevant their cited examples, or how "uncollegiate" their content. Poor writing persists because students know that professors are obligated to suffer through endless garbage in hopes of finding something salvageable. They are well aware that many professors will highlight their papers' weaknesses and then allow rewrites, and that some professors will accept nonwritten extra-credit projects to improve their final grades. In short, students know there are usually ways to avoid putting forth a gallant effort on a paper.

 I realized this great truth about five years ago, at the beginning of a semester in a composition class, after I finished reading a paper by one of my students. During our next class, I asked, "If I were to skim only the introductions of all 20 of your papers, but read in their entirety only the five papers with the best introductory paragraphs  the ones that entice me to continue reading  and automatically give the rest failing grades, would your introductions improve?"

 They all said yes and admitted that they would put more of an effort into capturing my attention and solidifying their theses. I've continued to ask each new class of students the same question, and I invariably get the same response.

 So a few semesters later, I added to my proposition a more tangible, albeit hypothetical, reward. I asked, "What if I had a check on my desk for $5,000? And what if I rewarded the writer whose introduction most caught my attention, who most effectively made me want to continue because of a solid and clear thesis, with a check for five grand? Would your introductions improve even more?"

 Cries of "Absolutely!" filled the room  to which I replied, "Then you always could do it. You just couldn't be bothered."

Silence followed.

 I still do this, pointing out to class after class, "You know you write better than these half-baked attempts you typed up late at night. There just wasn't anything tangible in it for you." The students will agree. Some will even acknowledge that conditioning throughout high school left them believing that a "good" attempt is good enough.

 Now, I'm confident that my students aren't sitting at home saying, "I'm going to make this as pathetic as possible." There is no malice on their part. But there's little "real world" risk involved, either. "What's an A on a college paper worth in the grand scheme anyway?" they reason.

 While the answers are obvious to those of us who do the grading, to the average student with 12 credit hours, a full-time job, a family, and essays to write, excellent work is often simply getting it done at all. Professors are in competition for attention not only with family, friends, classes, and jobs, but also with ever-increasing news-media onslaughts that rarely require students to focus for more than 20 seconds at a time.

 We must reshape students' thinking so they understand that "good enough" isn't, and that doing better is simply a matter of seeking the rewards of excellent writing in the same way one might seek a bigger paycheck for working overtime. We aren't offering them real training in earning rewards if we allow them to pass their courses despite weak effort and poor results. In the real world, people often get only one opportunity, one job opening, one chance to move ahead. Most of us know that the amount of time that a person commits to a project usually leads to better outcomes, but many students work under the delusion that almost any results are acceptable.

But what if we teach students to write their essays as though professors simply won't read them if they are of unacceptable quality?

 My most successful approach to improving my students' writing has resulted from teaching them to break the essay into stages. Each semester, I dedicate an entire class to writing an introduction with a solid thesis, emphasizing that the beginning of their papers is so essential to making the whole work excellent that it demands close examination.

 I have my students write their introductions in class, and I grade those separately  as though the grade for the entire paper were based solely upon that section. I then move on to the body of the paper, repeating the sectional grading.

 Doing so underscores how important the parts of the whole are, and helps students take each paragraph more seriously.

In the end, the grades are averaged together, but such detailed concern over the parts makes the whole essay more unified and lends more depth. Yes, the process is time-consuming, but it drives home the point that sometimes, getting it right means making extra effort.

In the past, when I asked students to read all or part of their papers aloud, I rarely got volunteers. But since I've begun teaching the students to break down their papers and focus on each element, they are almost always willing to stand up and share their work. It's rewarding for everyone involved.

By driving students to improve their efforts, we can teach them how to maximize their ability and overcome their lack of motivation. We must repeatedly remind them that doing poorly in college through halfhearted effort and mediocre work could lead to doing poorly in the real world, too, damaging their reputations and chances to advance in their careers. We want our students to view us as gatekeepers to what comes next in life instead of as mere grade distributors. Combined, those strategies are often sufficient wake-up calls for students to improve their efforts.

 We need to show students that we expect the same effort to get an A that they put forth to get a job, establish a career, or win a trophy. They can do it; they just need to be reminded of the difference between short- and long-term rewards.

Anything less than a $5,000 effort should mean an F  failure in college, fired in the real world.

Bob Kunzinger is an associate professor of English and the humanities at Tidewater Community College.
Section: Commentary