Six Myths of Academic Writing that must Disappear from our Conversations

The world is in love with a quick fix. Writing is hard. While we easily recognize both statements to be universal truths, we still search for a quick fix to make writing, especially our students’ writing, easier to for them execute and us to read.

Grading can be the bane of our existence. I know. I’m in the middle of grading 51 undergraduate papers right now. But there is simply no quick fix to making our grading consistently pleasant and there is no instructional strategy that will bring every student’s work to proficient. Writing is a flawed and finicky process that requires resilience and adaptability. We struggle with our own writing (editor’s note…. I’m struggling with this paragraph. It has been through numerous nit-picky edits and rewrites). Our students are struggling with what, to us, being years ahead in our writing education, may seem like basic skills. It’s easy to lament about how they can’t write — blame some poor faceless high school or introductory writing teacher  for their apparent lack of skills — but what is our responsibility?

How much of our attitude and temptation to lament are rooted in several pervasive myths about learning academic writing? Writing scholars who work daily with these novice writers have been writing and publishing about these myths for decades but this work seems to preach to the choir. When writing is placed in the hands of course leaders who don’t study writing, don’t read about writing, or don’t write themselves, but yet assign and grade undergraduate writing, the myths live on in poor pedagogical choices and harsh grading.

Some of the beliefs that novice graders or those not interested in writing pedagogy hold, e.g., our students are bad at grammar, that writing is transferable to all contexts, and a basic course is all writers need, do not help our students learn to write and become lifelong writers. So here are 6 myths of academic writing that need to disappear from our dialogue.

Drilling grammar will be a cure-all for bad student writing. Drilling grammar might make them better at select points of grammar but it won’t fix the whole. It won’t fix their tendency to be repetitive or to be too casual and it won’t make them ensure they have addressed the assignment guidelines appropriately. Those are problems of discourse and genre, not to mention personal characteristics of the student, not grammar. If you must, give them a review sheet of all the grammar issues that drive you crazy and are sure to decrease their grade,  but don’t call in the local writing expert to do a one-hour writing workshop to drill grammar. They will be irritated with you for asking, you’ll be disappointed in the results, and your students may not even show up. If you rant at students about their writing being ubiquitously deficient, they will tune you out and devalue writing.

To write is to write is to write. Think of this myth as the equivalent of a nurse is a nurse is a nurse. Can we plunk a mental health nurse into an ICU?…Would you ask an electrical engineer to build an airplane? I would hope not. We also can’t give a student, who has only written poetry or social media posts, an academic paper with citations and a supporting argument and expect perfectly executed writing. Not without some kind of instruction first. The student who has written academic papers in English literature may not be adequately prepared to write a paper in psychology. And guess what, it gets even closer to home than that… We can’t ask a student to write a paper in gerontology and then, in the next course, expect them to competently, without our guidance, to write a paper about maternity or palliative care — nor a research critique, or an ethics analysis or a letter to the editor. Each of these acts of writing is a new genre and requires a new skill set. Writing gets to the core of thinking unlike any other assignment but writing in all these different genres and voices requires significant instructor support. We can’t take a hands-off approach to our own assignments and think a tutoring service or a writing centre would do a better job of explaining our assignments than we can.  Those supports can help to a point, but only you can articulate your expectations and teach your assignment as it should be written.

Requiring an introductory writing course is enough writing instruction. It isn’t. Writing is a lifelong adventure of learning and improvement. Only more writing makes better writers. One course will get them started but every assignment will require new skills, a new discourse, and a new voice.

My students should be able to write using the same language that I would write with. Every discipline and every course within a discipline has its own preferred language and word choices — discourse is the fancy writing scholar term for that experience. Your students have had different educational and life experiences, not to mention lack of exposure to the required language choices of your course material, so they will have a different voice. They will choose different words to explain processes that for you are are second nature. Those different words are going to sound wrong to you but the only way a student can learn the right language is to mimic it or attempt it blindly and in attempting it they may (and will) get it gloriously, heroically, wrong.

Let me introduce my student Melanie to you. Melanie has graciously given me permission to share a piece of her writing. Melanie is a second year nursing student who has been working as a licensed practical nurse for some time now but has come back to school to upgrade to a baccalaureate degree. She knows nursing language but she does not know the language of research methods so she reached out for help with writing a section of her paper where she had to explain how she selected the three themes she decided to write about in her paper.

“Tell me if this is what you are looking for,” she wrote in her email to me with the following cut and past passage inserted within:

 

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 7.55.06 PM

This was not a bad start for not knowing this discourse of writing a method section to a research paper. Her APA citing is wrong. Her explanation leaves some holes. She knows I know what she did, but she didn’t explain it well enough for someone not familiar with the assignment or the exercise we did in class to prep them for this paper, to understand her process. There is nothing horribly grammatically incorrect with this passage but, yet, it somehow it doesn’t read quite right.  An inexperienced evaluator might read this passage and mistakenly label it as grammatically inept, be tempted to rewrite her sentences for her, and take many marks off her grade.

I resisted editing sentences, and emailed Melanie back with this response. (I’m the one in purple.)

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 7.55.31 PM

Not perfect feedback. I should have commented on the “this” at the start of the last sentence which is missing a clarifier (you’ll note below she didn’t fix it on her own). And Melanie took this feedback, made it her own, and wrote in her final paper a very strong rendition of the method section.

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The highlight on the word knowledge is just my track-changes comment box telling Melanie she made the perfect edits based on the feedback she got. And this is how students learn the discourse of a discipline. They can’t possibly get it right the first time when they have never done it before.

My instructions are really clear. There shouldn’t be any reason for them to screw this up. If you want strong papers from every student, then your instructional process better allow them to write as many drafts as it takes to get there… otherwise, learn to embrace the normal curve. You may think you have written brilliant assignment guidelines. You may think you’ve explained the process of writing your assignment dozens of times but some student will still get it wrong. Some students just need more time and much more feedback to get it to that point. They aren’t all equally skilled and you will never get 50 easy to ready wonderful papers in your mailbox. This is the worst part of our writing pedagogy in the college environment where class sizes are large and the ability to require multiple drafts is labour intensive. I don’t have help with my class of 51 (which is on the small size from typical for my program). I am their only writing support and that in itself is ineffective pedagogy but, I digress. Learning to write takes time and writing and rewriting and rewriting again with strong feedback is the only method to make that happen. If students don’t edit based on feedback it is only because they didn’t understand the feedback they got. The literature is clear about lack of understanding being a huge problem in academic writing feedback.

They don’t do the reading I ask them to do. Chances are they do the reading but they aren’t understanding it. As much as their writing skills are variable, their reading skills are also variable — perhaps even more so. Learning a new disciplinary language is not unlike learning a foreign language. They have to use the language and read the language often to become proficient. Make them read lots and they’ll pick up on the meaning of the discourse, they’ll be able to use it in their writing and their writing will get better — it will sound better to you who are already fluent in your discourse.

Students also have to be able to understand what they are reading to be able to interpret or paraphrase it. So problems with sentences that are intermittently minimally changed from the original in some students’ papers is likely a problem of not having the language to paraphrase. It’s not plagiarism; its poor reading skills (and poor writing skills. They go hand in hand).

What I know to be true is I’d rather put the work in up front before the paper is handed in for grading than leave things to chance and be disappointed by the frustrating results. Your students CAN write and they’ll write better when their instructors don’t instantly assume they are deficient.

 

4 thoughts on “Six Myths of Academic Writing that must Disappear from our Conversations

  1. I agree that all six “myths” are false, but I’m not sure anyone actually believes them. E.g., who thinks grammar drilling is a cure-all, or that an introductory writing course will make all students good writers?

    I’m actually more concerned about the the myths this post propagates. Grading does not have to be “the bane of our existence” and we should not “want strong papers from every student”. Instead, we should design assignments to be graded on a curve and then let the students read each other’s papers. We should get have them try to position each other on the same curve (to predict the teacher’s grade) and, yes, grade them even on that, i.e., their eye for quality in writing in their peers.

    If we did this, grading would be an interesting and joyful exercise in ranking papers according to their strengths, rather than the painful, and often embarrassing, chore of figuring out how to tell a student (that may not care very much) what they’re doing wrong. It would also normalize mediocrity (that’s what Cs are for). There’s no shame in having ordinary literacy skills. They should be acknowledged as such with no fuss, and no particular effort on the part of the teacher.

    Let us celebrate strong writing as precisely what it is: exceptional. It is exceptionally hard to write really well. Only students that make an effort (to develop what is probably a partially innate talent) will produce it. Most students neither want to nor need to become really good writers of “strong papers”. If we accept this we’ll be much happier.

    Grading will stop being a bane that we suffer *after the teaching is done* and will simply become part of what we are teaching the students, namely, an eye for strong prose.

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  2. Thanks for you comment Thomas — as I think you might have caught on from further Twitter conversations, there are some contextual things here that make teaching situation unique. Large class for one. Being in a discipline where many students as well as many faculty believe that you don’t need writing to be a good nurse. You are right though… no one who knows writing believes these myths, but I hear these myths from my non- writing colleagues often — and from non academic friends in the general public. Someone on Twitter directed me to the recently published Open Access book, “Bad Ideas About Writing” by Ball & Loewe (2017) out of ‘West Virginia University. It is a great read, with chapters by many well known writing scholars, and, preaches to the choir so to speak. But it addresses my 6 myths in multiple chapters as well as many many others that I did not address.
    Cheers,
    Kim

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    1. I guess the question is how we get around these myths, more than how we can debunk them. Like you say, we’re mostly preaching to the choir. One way, I would think, is to convince students that, even if you didn’t need good writing to be a nurse (and I’m inclined to agree with you that this is also a mistake to think), you do need it to get a good grade, i.e., to convince an examiner that you’ve understood what a course is about.

      This actually means that, in courses where writing isn’t the main topic, we could ignore the writing and focus on the content. The question is, in the time I’ve allotted for each essay (scalable for the size of the class), what ideas are actually getting through? The better writers will more effectively get their ideas across.

      The less capable writers will get lower grades even if they understand the material better. That’s something the students should simply be told can happen. Then they’ll make the relevant effort to improve their style.

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      1. Yeah.. I would like to think that would happen (students would strive to do better). That’s certainly what I aim for when I teach. Students are actually not that difficult to get a buy in from. They realize (maybe not in the moment but certainly after the fact) that they are learning something. My struggle is with my colleagues who don’t write themselves.

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