Breaking Students

Final projects are due today. I sit in my office as students drop by their final drafts. Many sit for a few minutes and reflect on their semester, worry about the next exam, or just complain. However, I am not getting this final closure from my favorite group of students this semester – those taking my Digital Rhetoric class. Why? Because they are submitting everything through their blog spaces. Instead of awkward hugs and friendly discussions of summer plans, I will steal into their blogs and grade.

This semester taught me a lot about how students write and how I teach. Here are some observations:

Students Procrastinate
When I designed this class, I thought the students would appreciate having flexible deadlines and writing at their own pace. I was wrong. I gave them a word count target for each week and routinely encouraged them to write. In fact, I gave them an hour a week in a computer lab just to work on their blogs and get support. I provided periodical ungraded feedback about their blogs. Nevertheless, most of them are frantically writing and posting on the day on which everything is due.

Students Have Been Disciplined
Through years of taking traditional classes either in high school or university, students bird songare uncomfortable when asked to write in non-traditional modes. As Foucault might suggest, the institutions conditioned/disciplined students to write academic research papers… and like it.  The students who excel in English struggle because they’ve learned how to game the system. The blog asks them to write in a unfamiliar form with their own voice to a public audience. I asked them to incorporate multimedia, use hyperlinks, and “be bloggy.”  They seemed to struggle because I did not provide enough rules or boundaries. They wanted more due dates, confines on their content, and traditional writing rules.

I see the same issue in my Business Writing students. Their end of the semester project is a business report. Many of them struggle all semester because they keep trying to produce traditional academic writing. A number of students kept asking about citation styles, the number of pages, and incorporating graphics. They couldn’t wrap their minds around using a chart of graphic as evidence – just like a quotation.  Many said, “I’ve never written this way before,” and they were scared.

Oral Presentations Have Pedagogical Value
While learning how to speak in public is an essential skill for most professions, the oral presentation has other pedagogical value. I mean, I knew this going into the semester, but it’s great to see it borne out by student feedback. Students said they learned what was important by trying to distill their project down to a short presentation. A number of students reported that the oral presentation helped them figure out the point of their projects. Other students said the presentation made them rethink their organization and use of graphics as evidence.  In other words, the presentation made them think critically about how they construct an argument in a way that the written draft could not.

Process over Product
I have always asserted that the final product is important in writing. And while this may be true, that doesn’t mean that writing should be taught that way. Instead, I tend to break projects down into pieces, have staggered due dates, and require drafts. A number of my students said they hated me two or three weeks ago when I asked for full drafts of their projects. However, these same students said they were grateful when they saw their peers trying to write and revise an entire paper and study for finals. One of my students said, “I know my paper is better than theirs because I had time to work on it.”

In the end, I think my courses prepare students for writing and thinking beyond the confines of the academic hot-house. By removing boundaries, I’ve asked them to think critically about their world and their voices. By showcasing the process of writing, I’ve demonstrated that writing is hard work that doesn’t leap fully formed from their heads. Or, maybe I’ve just taught them to avoid writing classes …

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