Writing as an Opportunity

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Many commentators have noted students’ disengagement with college classes as well as their difficulties with teaching styles and course materials. In a recent article in Inside Higher Education, Colleen Flaherty, following research by Sarah Brownell and her colleagues, offers that “students concerned about teaching style are balking at instructional strategies at least as much as at perceived difficulty.” Brownell and her colleagues studied the efficacy of active learning, including barriers to active learning. 

A significant finding of the study was that generalized anxiety increases students’ discomfort with small group work. “Much of student anxiety in active learning,” the researchers noted, “stems from a fear of being evaluated negatively and in the case of group work, students fear being evaluated negatively by a peer or group of their peers.”  

Anecdotally, as I suggested in a post earlier this semester, anxiety is the shadow side of flow. It’s easy to imagine how students would feel anxious about their writing being judged, and worse still, not earning “A”s for their writing. Perhaps earning an “A” signifies aiming for perfection, with “A”s as essential for admission to competitive colleges, and perfection might have meant adherence to specific models, and following rules such as not using “I” in their writing.

After surviving interrupted in-person schooling throughout the worst parts of the pandemic, it makes sense to me that students would not want to engage with strangers, even if those strangers are classmates or their teacher in a college writing course. It also makes sense that students would take comfort in what they already know, rather than commit to learning something new. Yet as many postsecondary educators (see Knesek for a helpful overview), earning an “A” is not the same as learning new processes and approaches to writing and rhetoric (see Von Bergen).

Ungrading is certainly one solution, one which I experienced many years ago. Without the fear of a low grade appearing on my transcript, I found it easier to take risks and experiment with learning. But my high school and college years did not take place in the midst of a global pandemic. Moreover, at the end of the semester, again, in my experience, college require grades for transcripts, and students require grades to keep and apply for scholarships and post-graduate education. Ungrading does not automatically set us free from the larger systemic problems of grades and grading. Even with a philosophy of “A” for everyone, (in colleges that require letter grades, everyone still needs to have that “A” listed on a transcript.

Past the halfway point of the term, I wanted to suggest to my students other considerations for growing their writing. In the Daily Syllabus Update, I posted the following list. 

Tips and Hints: College Writing, as we have discussed, is different from high school writing in many ways. For instance:

  • Following a “model” essay project does NOT mean “A” level college writing.
    • Growing your writing often involves writing outside your comfort zone. 
  • Writing projects do NOT have to be perfect. Learning matters more than perfection.
    • Submitting all writing projects and journals by the final deadline matters more than perfection.
  • Writing grows over time and with practice.
    • DO NOT save your Writing Projects and journals for the last week of class or for the final deadline. Students in previous semesters report that this writing strategy does NOT work.

In posting these “Tips and Hints,” my hope was to offer students the means to navigate through anxiety to successful completion of the semester, but not merely by adding another required course to their transcripts. Indeed, writing is a requirement, and it is also an opportunity to write– not as a means of following a model to perfection, but through the process of engaging practices and processes that allow for learning, and therefore for writing.

“Opens Up Windows for Opportunity” Pink post-it note found on a school window in NYC..jpg

Photo by Susan Bernstein, February 15, 2019 

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.