Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Maybe it’s the Writing Courses that Need Revision . . .

I used to be an advocate of students writing a lot. And I mean a lot. A paper a week, at least a thousand words per paper.

But three years of teaching basic writing at Brigham Young University-Idaho – and this article from on a bit of software that reads student essays and offers them suggestions for improvement – are convincing me I’ve got it all upside down, at least in one respect.

Students should write a lot. But a lot of that writing should be revision.

Here’s what popped out at me from the Slate article:

[R]evision only seems like a modest goal if you ignore how rare it is in student writing, where the typical pattern is: Procrastinate, panic, write all night, turn it in, and forget it. A week or two later, when teachers finally pass back the work, any feedback they offer is more or less ignored.

“I mean, once you get a graded essay back, where do you put it? You don’t keep it!” said Dean Ramser, who teaches first-year composition at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

All that careful reading and feedback offered by teachers? Mostly tossed out the window. I can confirm this anecdotally because I’ve always been stymied by students who make the same mistakes over and over, or who fail to connect the dots from one assignment to the next (we take our students through a series of assignments meant to make their writing more lively, and then throw a research paper at them with causes them to display imprinting from the more primitive, high-school-oriented part of their brains where they first learned the Formula for Research Writing ®, meaning boring, boring, boring.

I would love to teach a semester course on revision, where students start with one paper or topic – even something they’ve already written – and keep on re-working it and revising it throughout the semester. And I wouldn’t necessarily bill it as an advanced writing class – I’d aim it at beginners, or at least intermediates (though it would be valuable for beginners). Because the more advanced writers already know the value of revision and feedback, and the fact that you have to go through more than several iterations before good writing becomes great writing.

The challenge in such a course would be to fight the boredom. Students might not like the idea of revising the same old paper over and over. So maybe the course involves three papers, but with multiple submissions of each paper so drafts and revisions and final drafts are all graded and such. That might be worth something.

Pairing students up for one-on-one beta reads might also be useful – through peer review tends, for the most part, to be superficial. Having a computer do some of the peer review, as outlined by Slate, might bring in enough of an interest factor to help improve peer review’s overall usefulness.

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