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“But in my last class, the teacher said…”

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Over the past two weeks, my FYC students have been drafting, revising, and editing a researched essay. I conference individually with students and devote class time to workshops, feedback, and student questions. This semester, as usual, many of their questions concerned writing rules encountered in previous courses or in other content courses they are currently taking. The typical exchange goes something like this:

 

Student: So, can we use contractions in this paper?

Me: Well, sure – if they make sense for your purpose and your reader, and for the tone or voice you are constructing for yourself in the paper.

Student: Seriously?

Me:  Yes.

Student: But in my other class, the teacher said academic writers never use contractions. She took points off if we did. 

Me: Well, in some contexts it could be better to avoid them—think about what class it was and the purpose of that particular paper. How was that purpose different than your purpose here?

 

Students rarely see an overarching concept—such as writing for a specific purpose and reader—tied to the rules given by an instructor. Rather, they see each assignment as its own, isolated entity, and their task as doing whatever a particular instructor wants for a particular assignment. 

 

Why should that be? Perhaps our efforts across the curriculum to give clear and unequivocal statements regarding our expectations can work against our goal to help students connect assignments and transfer what they already know. I am not suggesting that our assignments should be fuzzy or vague, but I do think we need to look at the array of directives in those assignments through the eyes of students. 

 

So, for example, consider a list of writing rules I’ve begun to collect from students, colleagues, handouts, and presentations about writing. These come from assignments across disciplines, from two-year and four-year instructors, from first-year to upper-level courses:

 

  1. Avoid quotes. Paraphrase and put key information in your own voice.
  2. Avoid saying your paper “attempts” to do anything. Avoid “impact” as a verb, along with “seeks to.” Avoid “aims to.” Avoid saying “in the past.”
  3. Avoid vague references: “as we all know,” “people say.”  
  4. Begin broadly and then narrow your topic to the thesis.
  5. Do not announce what you are going to do in the paper.
  6. Do not begin too broadly (“throughout history,” “in all of literature,” etc.)
  7. Do not begin sentences or clauses with any of the following: “There are/is…”, “This is…”, “It is…,” etc.
  8. Do not end a sentence with a preposition.
  9. Do not give a dictionary definition as an introduction.
  10. Do not hedge with words like “maybe,” “seem,” “perhaps,” “might,” or “possibly.”
  11. Do not overgeneralize or make unqualified assertions.
  12. Do not provide a long list of references after facts established by previous research.
  13. Do not put these words at the beginning of a sentence: “however,” “furthermore,” “moreover,” “indeed,” etc.
  14. Do not say, “I/we argue.”  
  15. Do not say, “Everyone has their own opinion.” That is obvious, and it shuts down critical thinking.
  16. Do not start a sentence with “and.”
  17. Do not use the passive voice.  
  18. Do not use first person pronouns.
  19. Do not use contractions.
  20. Do not use “say” to introduce source material. Choose a more interesting verb.
  21. Do not use scare quotes or put quotation marks around words used in unexpected ways.
  22. Do not use second person pronouns.
  23. Do not use the word “very.”
  24. Do not write paragraphs with only 1-2 sentences.
  25. Make sure the significant results are stated in the beginning.
  26. Put a clear and obvious thesis sentence at the end of your first paragraph.  
  27. Remove the verb “be” in all forms from your writing.
  28. Use “rhetorical verbs” such as “say,” “assert,” “explain,” or “introduce” when you introduce sources; do not use “cognition” or “emotion” verbs: “think,” “believe,” “understand,” or “love.”
  29. Use short Anglo-Saxon words.  
  30. Write in the present tense.
  31. Write in the past tense.

 

What do students see when confronted with rules such as these from different instructors? They may see idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and frustrations. When we talk about “good writing,” it’s no wonder a common response is that it means “whatever the teacher wants.”

Comparing rules and our rationales for them (which may not be clear to students) might be a helpful point for a cross-disciplinary discussion and a focus for WAC-oriented professional development.

In future posts, I want to look at some promising strategies for helping students think differently about writing rules and assignments that seem to be framed by those rules.

How do you respond when students mention rules they have encountered in other courses?

5 Comments
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I always enjoy the DO NOT lists that we generate in our attempts to help students become better writers. 

As always, I have to consider the level at which the student is learning.  Because I teach composition courses for dual credit as well as on-campus essential studies, I have to realize that many of those students need the list of DO NOTs.  For many, it creates a concrete foundation for a rather abstract process.  

So, rather than trying to fight against the DO NOT lists, I embrace them; we share our lists from past writing teachers,  talk about the type of writing they were attached to,  and discuss why some exist.   It seems to give my beginning writers an understanding that writing is delightfully messy.

Author
Author

Hi April!  You've already set the stage for what I want to talk about in my next blog -- how we can take these lists and turn them into teaching tools and platforms for discussion (and possibly even writing projects).  I love your last line: "...writing is delightfully messy."  Indeed!

Migrated Account

I thought this was interesting, since I’m sure most of us we have this phrase at one point or another.

Kristin

Sent from my iPhone

Migrated Account

Great blog, Miriam. I have to add a story from my own classroom experience:

Student: But I was always told never to use "I" in college writing.

Me: Who told you that?

Student: You did, last semester.

Now I know I have never told students not to use "I" in their essays, but clearly this student thought I did. 

Author
Author

This is indeed a common experience, and it's always a bit tricky to respond to because sometimes what that other instructor told students reflects outdated writing conventions or is just plain idiosyncratic.  So I respond in a number of ways, explaining, first, that writing is a matter of conventions (and what that means), and that different disciplines have different conventions (e.g., scientific writing avoids first person pronouns and tends towards the passive voice, while literary writing once preferred "we" over "I," but now prefers "I").  I also explain that sentence fragments, in the hands of a proficient writer, can be quite effective, and so on and so forth. But I also carefully explain that, given the conditions of writing for a grade, it is wisest to conform to what an individual instructor demands, and that I wouldn't want any student to be penalized in a different class for whatever writing guidance I present.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.