The Expectation Gap

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Fall term is just getting underway at my home university, and I’ve been talking with teachers of writing there—and across the country—about changes they are seeing in the new frosh class. Of course it is difficult and dangerous to generalize, since students’ experiences of the last few years have been extremely varied, but some patterns do seem to be emerging. What seems most noticeable as a new school year gets underway is a gap between the expectations of students and those of their teachers. I’ve written before about growing student resistance to reading, and particularly reading long texts: the TL;DR response from students seems widespread. But many students also seem more resistant to coming to class consistently or to adhering to deadlines. You could probably add to this list. These behaviors do not match teacher expectations, to say the least.

As college writing classes increasingly go back to pre-pandemic norms of face-to-face meetings, it’s important to articulate these changes and then to engage our student partners in discussing them and in ways that invite students to think about and explore their own expectations and probe where they are coming from. To me, this means spending time up front in the term on such activities, taking time to write about what seems to have changed in terms of attitudes and expectations and to explore causes of those changes as well as their short-term and long-term consequences. 

I have always thought of the first few days of any term as the time for establishing our classroom ethos, norms that we develop and describe together and that we return to throughout the term as we need to. Now I am thinking that I would want to devote perhaps more time at the beginning of the term on such activities, asking students to do small group work and some writing about what they expect a college writing class to be like, what they think its guidelines or requirements should be, and how they would describe the kind of classroom ethos that would be most productive for them. I would read these carefully, responding to each individually and using them as the basis for a whole class discussion. And I will probably refer to them during the course of the term, especially if we are struggling with that expectation “gap” I mentioned earlier. But I would wait until near the end of the term to return them to students and ask them to read what they wrote during the first week of class again, annotating that document and talking with it and back to it, reflecting on what they still hold to, what they might change, and why. 

The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre of the University of British ColumbiaThe Irving K. Barber Learning Centre of the University of British Columbia


Just thinking about such an activity takes me down memory lane to my first post-PhD job, teaching first-year writing at the University of British Columbia in the late seventies. At that time, UBC courses still followed some British traditions, and one of them was that my first-year writing classes were year-long; that is, these classes met for the first semester and then took a winter holiday during which the students received a “preliminary” grade—and then reconvened after the break for another semester of work together. This was the most luxurious and fruitful teaching situation I had during my 50 years of teaching: what an opportunity to watch writing develop over the course of an entire school year; what a delight to get to know the students and their work in fine detail. And what a chance to build a classroom ethos together, and to work together, for growth not just in writing and speaking ability but in depth of thinking and breadth of points of view. 

What a shock it was for me to move from that system to what I have always called “the dreaded quarter system.” But I learned that growth and change are possible even in ten-week increments, and I learned to adjust. If we are anything, writing teachers are flexible, “reading” our students and our classroom contexts as carefully and clearly as we possibly can and asking students to do the same. The challenges we face today are surely different than they were five years ago, much less fifty, and I believe these challenges are more daunting than ever. But as this new school year begins, my faith in teachers of writing, and our students, still holds.


Image credit: CjayD via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.