Feb 2, 2015
I want you to do a little experiment for me. Think back to what you were writing five years ago. If you happen to be at your computer or the scrapbook of everything you’ve ever written, you can even pull up your writing. If not, just go ahead and meditate. Do you need a moment? It’s okay, I’ll wait. Now then—has your writing gotten better? Have you become a better writer?
If you’re like me, you probably look at the things you were writing five years, or even a year ago, you might say, “yes” in very enthusiastic tones. If you’re like me, you might, in fact, have a hard time reading the work you did five years ago. How could I have been so stupid? How was I such a bad writer?
Lee Ann Carroll, in her book Rehearsing New Roles has a shocking proposition for you: maybe you weren’t a bad writer, maybe you were just inexpert in writing the sort of things you write today. Carroll gathered up some college students and performed a longitudinal study, which means that she followed the same subjects around through their entire time at school and beyond. She had them sit down in interviews with her and fill out time logs detailing how much studying they do outside of class (in case you’re curious, the amount ranged from five hours a week to forty). They brought in their writing assignments, and their outside writing to talk about. It was very thorough. And do you want to know her take away?
First off that “students in college do not necessarily learn to write ‘better,’ but that they learn to write differently—to produce new more complicated forms addressing challenging topics with greater depth, complexity and rhetorical sophistication” (xiv) “Wait a moment,” you might say, “great depth, complexity and rhetorical sophistication? Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying “better writing?” Maybe it is, but it’s not that they’re getting better at this vague genre of “academic writing. As Carroll puts it “Their writing gets better in that they do learn to write differently but the do not fulfill the fantasy of mastering one kind of literacy, an idealized version of academic writing” (60).
This is the real-life writing changes of writing in the disciplines. A student gets into one class, learns the genres and expectations of that class and then, right when she gets the hang of it, heads into another class. “Students’ literacy develops because students must take on new and difficult roles that challenge their abilities as writers. In fact, student writing may sometimes need to get ‘worse’ befor it can become ‘better.’ Because many college writing tasks are essentially new to students, they will need repeated practice to become proficient.” (9). How much do professors take this into consideration? Not very much.
The writing assignments that Carroll’s participants navigated were complex and sophisticated, but also, very, very different from each other. She claims that “Faculty are likely to underestimate how much writing tasks differ from course to course, from discipline to discipline, and from professor to professor” (9) Put another way, “students must learn to write differently but have few opportunities to develop one particular type of writng over any extended period of time” (55).
And where does this leave first year composition? Carroll writes that we should take the work of first year composition seriously, but not “too seriously. A first-year composition course can serve students by helping them make connections between what they have already learned about writing in their k-12 education and ways they might learn to write differently both in the academy and as citizens of the larger society. On the other hand, first-year composition cannot succed as a source that will teach students how to write for contexts they have no yet encountered A one-semester writing course is bet viewed as ust one step in a long process of development that extends from children’s first encounters with literacy on through their adult lives” (27-28).
Carroll does have some practical recommendations. She suggests that first year composition focus on metacognitive awareness and students own writing as much as possible. You know asking students things like “what do you do when you get an assignment prompt?” and discussing their own writing practice. She also recommends focusing on portfolios—in classes as well as in departments and programs. As much as possible, those portfolios should provide opportunities to return to similar genres as well as challendging students to try new things—remembering that the results will be less than perfect and that students will need plenty of specific feedback.
I find Carroll’s argument very persuasive, and as I’ve written and recorded more of these podcasts, I’ve noticed that this weird literary genre is becoming more comfortable for me. But it’s been more than a year! How many literacy projects do average undergraduates get to revisit over and over again? Is there a project you’ve mastered or a project you thought you mastered (like the so called reading response) only to discover that a different teacher had a different expectation? If so drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear about it. Now go back and check out your writing from five years again, because if it’s anything like mine, it’s pretty darn amusing and well worth a reread