Do Academics Devalue Writing?

I meant to write this blog months ago. It is inspired by observations made while at a conference in the spring with other writing scholars. The devaluing of writing is an issue I think about often as I inch ahead in my own PhD studies and consider, while applying for grants for example, how others will perceive my work. How my discipline perceives my work is especially crucial given that I am in a practice-based discipline not a humanities discipline where, you would think but it is apparently not so, that the value of writing would be more self-evident.

My research area is writing in nursing education.  I have conducted research on writing self-efficacy in first-year nursing students in several projects I started before I became a PhD student. When tackling psycho-educational topics in a discipline that privileges the biomedical perspective, there are those that will brush you off, tell you your topic doesn’t interest them, or look at you strangely and tell you they didn’t realize nurses needed to write. In that environment, it is hard to go up against, for grants or even to get certain journals to take you seriously, scholars who are trying to cure cancer, as the epitomes example.

But someone has to teach the future cancer curers of this academic world how to write and think.

In nursing the problem has looked like such:

  1. Most nursing programs in Canada do not teach writing at all to their students. Or if they do believe their students require writing skills, they require an English Literature course as a prerequisite (as if interpreting literature and writing about it will help them write better research synthesis papers). Or they require students take a basic generic writing course which drills grammar and a style guide. Discipline-specific writing instruction is rare in nursing programs (6% in Canada).  I am grateful to Jo-anne Andre and Roger Graves for the study that has fed me that stat.
  2. Writing ability is not an entry level practice competency for nurses at the national or provincial level in Canada.  I have been through the competency documents for every province (except Quebec) and none of them include writing as a competency. One of them (my own province, gratefully) includes the following statement under the heading of assumptions: “Entry-level registered nurses demonstrate English or French language proficiency (reading, writing, listening and speaking).”
  3. The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) the organization that “establishes and promotes national standards of excellence for nursing education”  has written a National Nursing Education Framework. Writing does not appear in the framework as a priority of nursing education until the Masters level of education. Writing is not mentioned in undergraduate education at all so I’ve been wondering where nursing Masters students are learning to develop such skills as as,
    “The ability to articulate verbally, and in writing, to a wide range of audiences the evidence for nursing decisions, including the credibility and relevance of sources of information,”

    if those skills are not honed in undergraduate education as a component of excellence in nursing education. The hardest writing requirement imbedded in that statement above as an educational priority for Masters education is the writing for a wide range of audiences. Understanding the needs of an audience is the most challenging writing skill of all. You come to understand the needs of an audience, through lots and lots and lots of writing and that writing exposure better come well before the Masters level.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on faculty in a nursing program that includes in its curriculum one of the rare 6% of discipline-specific writing courses. In fact, I developed that course. Our former chair, now retired, valued writing, but it is likely she included the course because she had a ready-made registered nurse faculty member (meaning me) to step in and develop the course. Our course, in its inception, was truly discipline-specific because it was taught and developed by a registered nurse. But she only made it one credit hour in value which does not represent the workload or the stress levels incurred by some students.

Nevertheless, I’ve still encountered problems from our faculty over the value of writing. For example, we have a parallel policy that students must pass every course in each term before moving on in the program. We weren’t far into our new curriculum (2 terms) when the writing course became a quick exception to that rule and students were were allowed to move to the next term without successfully completing the writing course.

As another example, at some point in our program we had to stop allowing faculty to be too autonomous in their assignment choices and the location of writing assignments needed to be pre-selected and permanent because writing assignments were being dropped from courses without any consultation. Instructors would trial an assignment, quickly realize how much work they were, and the next year it would be gone from their course. They did this stealthily, without telling anyone, and no one found out until it was too late.

I have also discovered how quick instructors are to place blame on the introductory writing course as the cause of students’ perceived lack of writing skills. I can’t even count the number of emails, hallway conversations, and pointed questions at faculty meetings, where I was required to address the generic finger point, “Didn’t they learn this stuff in your course?” As if I was the magic bullet. As if my course was the end of the line for undergraduate students learning how to write.

So it shocked me to be at a writing scholars’ conference (CASDW) and find out that the nursing experience wasn’t unique at all. That even in the writing studies discipline faculty were plagued with pointed fingers and statements of devaluing. Faculty calling writing a “soft skill.” The blaming of some unknown entity before these students arrived at their doorstep for their poor writing as if each individual course assignment didn’t require new learning, new writing supports, no matter the level these students were at. We seem to want students to be sitting in our classrooms fully formed when it comes to writing. And the industries we feed want students coming out with better writing (and communication) skills but they don’t want to lengthen programs to help students develop these skills.

When I wrote the tweet I posted above, many of those who contributed to the conversation thought I meant students were the ones devaluing writing but I was talking about faculty primarily. Many defined students’ devaluing of writing by them not caring about the grammar in their assignments. But grammar is not the only thing that makes bad writing. And what makes for bad grammar can be highly subjective and disciplinary too. What bothers me as a grader will be different from what bothers you. I, for example, could not care less about detecting split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, but I’m going to be all over bad uses of semi-colons. I’m much more interested in ideas, clarity, creativity, cohesiveness.

Reading qualitative studies asking students about what they think of the feedback they get on their writing enlightened me to student frustrations. The thing students hate the most is when their graders fail to see what they are trying to say in order to simply nit-pick at sentence by sentence grammatical structure. You want students to pay attention to grammar, tell them to read their papers out loud to themselves. Give them time in class to do it. More writing will improve students grammar but students quickly become disengaged in their writing if they feel their ideas are being ignored.

If students devalue writing it is because we model that to devalue it is acceptable. We model it by doing some of the things I’ve described above.  Allowing them to progress in a program without passing a required writing credit is like saying, well, you can get by without it. I’ve heard faculty talking to students about how much they hate writing too and avoid it. I’ve heard them validating student beliefs that nurses don’t need to know how to write to look after a patient. Faculty make these comments without any consideration for the nature of thinking that goes into writing that will benefit student thinking at the bedside.

In my experience, the faculty complaining loudest about the dire condition of student writing are the ones that seem to devalue writing the most. Many of these faculty have no intention of being a part of the solution. Many don’t recognize that in order for good writing to be handed in, supports must be in place and the educator assigning the writing must be a part of that support system. Bad writing in your course is not someone else’s problem. It is your problem. Writing experts have known for years that drilling grammar does not fix that problem, so demanding that writing scholars come in and fix the issue by offering a 2 hour workshop on the basics of grammar, will not fix the bad writing your assignment produces. You’ll be lucky if any of the students show up. Deficit pedagogy, where we tell students what NOT to do over and over again, does nothing to teach them what they should do.

In  my mind, getting good writing out of our students requires three simple things:

  1. Writing a meaningful assignment and allowing student choice.
  2. Providing in-classroom supports for our own assignments.
  3. Allowing students to say something that is their own and represents their identity in the work.

Developing writing identity may be the key to helping students value writing. Students resent writing that demands they leave themselves out of the analysis. I don’t blame them. I resent writing like that as well. But so many disciplines continue to devalue writing, even at the professional academic level, that shows any shred of humanity.  They label that kind of writing as biased writing, lacking objectivity. I conducted a poll shortly after tweeting the devaluing thread, asking academics and researchers if they would call themselves “a writer”

If you remove the folks that were just spying, 56% said yes, 30% said no, and 14% said not sure. So just under half of the academics/researchers and Phd students who responded would not identify as a writer. In the comments below, some said they they felt writing was a necessary evil of the job. It was a task, not an identity.  Some felt it was not their primary identity (teaching was). But yet writing is what we do. Writing is what makes our research travel. Writing is what gets us degrees, promotions, grants, recognition, publications, and advances our careers. How can we not identify as writers?

If such a large proportion of those teaching and assigning writing to students cannot identify as writers then we have an identity crisis in academia. The problem of devaluing writing may stem from this identity crisis. I learned this week that writing studies scholars have challenges even being recognized as a relevant discipline. If we don’t write as academics, if we don’t value writing ourselves, if we don’t want to teach writing or help our students value writing, what is it that we do again?

Can I Have an Extension, Please?

Where is the line in the sand when it comes to granting or refusing extensions on writing assignments? The image is a bike tire track on sand but it was the closest I had to a personal image representing that metaphor.

I asked for my first extension as a PhD student a couple of weeks ago. In fairness, my entire class also asked for an extension. It had been strongly suggested to us that we participate as much as possible in the Research Symposium organized by the faculty. The symposium was wonderful so it wasn’t difficult to want to participate, but it was also two full days and two evenings of symposium activities, and one evening of being exhausted taken away from completing an intense 25-page assignment on measurement. We were lucky. (Or charming?) Our prof said yes and it was a like releasing the death grip on our sanity.

Student requests for extensions became a hot and controversial topic on Twitter earlier this week. Extensions are a writing issue that all writers encounter a need for. They are linked to my primary area of study in academic writing: Writing Self-Efficacy. They are also linked to the social inequalities present in academia among students that we may not recognize when we criticize students for their inability to get their work done on time.

The Debate

  1. All students should be given extensions on request regardless of reason.
  2. No student should be given an extension because in the real world, deadlines  are not extended.

It is obviously much more complicated than that but that is the essence of the dichotomy as it comes out of the mouths of black and white thinkers. It might be easier to talk about the shades of grey in between by telling you my process of dealing (or rather not dealing with) extensions.

A number of years ago when I was a much more junior college instructor I observed very quickly that in a class size of 70 students (or more) that it was a time consuming pain in the ass to receive 20 or more emails asking for extensions for various reasons. Not only that, but our department made them fill out a form which was then to go in their file so they could keep track of a pattern of behaviour.  For each student who requested an extension, I would have to make an independent decision to grant or not grant their request.

… but what, after all,  defines a good enough reason?

Illness? A death in the family? Hospitalization? My kid is sick? My parent is sick? I’m too busy with other assignments and clinical? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above?

I am bound by some department policies. Extensions are allowed, to a maximum of one week, at the discretion of an instructor, and they must be requested 24-hours in advance of a due date (which, think about this, means 72 hours in advance if the due date is a Monday). Something about tracking requests for extensions and making a decision about what was a valid reason for needing an extension based on my own personal view point didn’t sit well with me.

So I began pre-announcing, in the first class of a term, a due date and an automatic extension date for the entire class. No questions asked. AND — this might be the controversial part — I give those who had in their paper “on time” 2 bonus marks.

Here is my rationale for my personal policy:

  1. The students are adults. They should be allowed some control over their life.
  2. No matter how hard we try to say we are preparing students for real life, being a student is NOT real life. Hence why I teach at the college level. It’s been my extended way of avoiding real life for a very long time now. So the argument that no extensions are granted in the real world, doesn’t wash well with me. And it’s pretty much flat out untrue more often than it is true.
  3. I believe that rewards are far more motivating than punishments.
  4. It prevents students from being put in the place of needing to lie to you, or having to accept a punishment such as grade loss.  Having restrictive extension policies such as you can only have an extension if you are sick or someone close to you dies, basically puts students who need extensions for other reasons in a place where they have to make a choice that isn’t a choice.  So they are punished, or they lie to you. Talk about stress and anxiety. I don’t see how either is a good option when you are the less powerful party just trying to survive.
  5. Lets not even go down the road of discussing those who demand doctor’s notes. What a waste of a doctor’s time (and the student’s money — they don’t hand out those notes for free) to send a sick student to sit in a waiting room and spread germs just to humour a teacher’s fear of being lied to and fear being unfair to all the others who were not as unlucky and didn’t get sick.
  6. Sometimes the shit hits the fan within that final 24-hour period.
  7. It demonstrates that I trust my students to make their own judgement call about their lives and what they can manage. It also protects their privacy. They no longer have to tell me their often very personal stories that might be embarrassing to them. And, frankly, I don’t need to know.

How has this worked out for me? I don’t always use this policy. When I am using true scaffolding writing strategies, for example, where students are completing their assignment in small stages across the term, it is often not needed. But when I use it, I find it very successful. Here are some of the discoveries I have made along the way:

  1. Students need a reminder to psychologically view the first due date as the due date because if they start thinking of the extension date as the due date, some of them will run into big troubles with procrastination. I structure the pre-assignment expectations as such that no student should be in the position of not having something started by the time the first due date rolls around.
  2. I tell them to not make a decision until the last minute so the extension is used only if they really need it. I also tell them not hand in crap just for bonus marks. They can often earn far more than the 2 marks just with taking a little time to better edit their paper. (Problem I acknowledge: it requires that they understand what kinds of editing will get them more marks. Some of them don’t.)
  3. 100% of terms over the last 5 academic years has seen more students taking the extension than not. In fact the number of students handing in the paper “on time” ranges from 0 to 15 out of an average of 60 students per class.
  4. The majority of students handing in the paper “on time” are the A-grade students anyway. So the bonus may not be necessary (but I’ve never tested that theory).
  5. Most students know that putting off their school work just makes subsequent school work harder to attend to. There is no down time in  nursing school.
  6. With the very rare and extreme exception, further extensions are not granted.

I’ve heard the arguments about being limiting with extensions. That it isn’t fair to the students who hand in their work on time. That it is laziness and procrastination that makes them request extensions. In my experience, it is rarely laziness or poor time management that leads to a student wanting an extension. It’s the very complicated lives our students lead. Arguments of fairness assume all the students are starting off on a level playing field. They aren’t. You cannot compare the responsibilities of a student who is single parenting three children to the responsibilities of a 22 year old, living at home with her parents and has no job but school work. And that 22-year old may be being abused by her boyfriend. You simply don’t know.

And here is a crazy but anecdotal observation — those with the strictest extension policies for students are also the first to demand concessions for themselves when they need more time.

There are students in our classrooms who are working just so they can feed their family and have many other disadvantages both visible and invisible. It’s family demands, especially in cultures where you cannot say no to your family if they show up at your door at 8 PM expecting to be entertained. It’s being educationally disadvantaged your whole life and being behind in understanding the lingo and behaviours that define being “a good student.” It’s low self-efficacy that can paralyze thinking and emotions. It is an exhausted brain demanding that it be shut off for the night even though the assignment is due in 6 hours. It’s anxiety, which is really a legitimate illness, except it isn’t a socially acceptable illness so how do you describe your “illness” when you aren’t barfing or feverish, so you aren’t “really” sick, but you can’t seem to get anything done anyway?

Having said that, there are limits. There are lines in the sand. Extensions cannot drag on and on or be unlimited. We have due dates to manage our own workloads and personal circumstances too.  The college has a generous 3-month post end of a course policy for outstanding assignments and exams which can be activated in exceptional circumstances. We’ve put it into effect numerous times with students in need (a student whose house burned down, another having gastrointestinal hospitalizations, another hospitalized for mental health issues, another with cancer).

So there is willingness to allow extensions on due dates, but sometimes a student needs to consider their status as a student. Students under stress often have limited insight into when they need to ask for help or need to take the load of school off their shoulders. They think they can do their school work despite the world crashing down around them. They make bad decisions. Sometimes a one week extension isn’t enough to get through. Fortunately I am in a program with diligent and excellent student advisors (who are also nurses) who can coach students through this decision making process. Sometimes an extension is not what a student needs. What they need is permission to stop, take a breath, fix their lives, and come back healthy. School will still be there.*

*mini side rant about scholarships and funders who take student’s money away for failures or time off for illness. That BS needs to stop too. Not all students live lives, or have the academic naturalness, to handle the full time course loads required by some funders.