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Occasionally, one hears grumbling from faculty who assign writing in their courses about the apparent lack of preparation of students to successfully execute those assignments. They wonder what’s happening in the general education writing courses when so many students seem to arrive in without the skills necessary to succeed at college-level writing, particularly research-based analytical work.

As an instructor of first-year writing it can be hard not to take these things personally.

I do my best to help students succeed for the future writing occasions they’ll confront in college and beyond, but the truth is, I cannot properly prepare them for what’s coming.

Semester’s end causes me to consider why this is the case.

So, some thoughts on why I cannot effectively prepare students to write their (history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, whatever) papers.[1]

1. First-year writing is only one semester long.[2]

2. The students are young or inexperienced or both, and writing is a skill that develops over our lifetimes, not a semester. We are all works in progress. The notion that a first-year writing course is a kind of vaccine that prevents bad writing going forward is a fantasy. (We do not expect this expertise of students in other types of writing courses. Having taken a single creative writing course, students are not expected to become published authors.)

3. Many students arrive in the college classroom with writing processes stunted by a near-exclusive diet writing in the context of standardized assessment. They are armed with the 5-paragraph essay and an ability to parrot existing information. The shift to writing analysis and argument is very very difficult, and a semester (or even a year) is not enough time for this to happen.

4. One of the biggest reasons students have a hard time writing analysis and argument is because they often don’t have sufficient subject and domain expertise about what is being argued. They can describe what someone else says, but don’t yet have the knowledge to build upon that information. I see this time and again in the analytical research papers I assign as students struggle to insert their ideas into debates they’re not yet prepared to join. If your (history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, whatever) course is the first time they’ve encountered your field, they will struggle.

5. If I am successful, students exit my course armed with a flexible and adaptable writing process rooted in an analysis of the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, genre), but when they encounter a new genre they often regress, often in every dimension, even down to the sentence level.

6. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that students do not understand the genre you are asking them to write within. Inside of our own fields, we usually have thoroughly internalized genre conventions to the point that we don’t even think about them.

7. But to students, the genre of a (history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, whatever) paper is entirely new.

8. Actually, it’s worse. It’s not entirely new, but somewhat familiar, which means they will trot out the closest template with which they’re comfortable and try to use that. Rather than making choices rooted in a rhetorical situation, they fall back to “rules” that may or may not apply.

9. When faculty in other disciplines complain that students “can’t even write a decent sentence,” (likely true when looking at the actual assignments), the problem is not that students don’t know grammar and syntax, but because they are struggling badly with making meaning, and because they have no idea what they’re trying to say, why they’re trying to say it, or to whom, flailing commences.

I don’t mean this list as an excuse for unprepared or underperforming students. No one wants student writing to be better than the first-year writing instructor, but my time in the trenches tells me that we could be doing more to help students achieve success.

Occasionally I get asked for advice on assigning writing in non-English courses. I say the following.

1. Help students understand the genre they are writing in. They should know not only the genre’s conventions, but the source/rationale behind those conventions. For example, rather than commanding students use a particular citation style, help them see that a citation style is rooted in a specific audience need, that we cite sources so other scholars can come in afterward and check and respond to the work.

2. Rather than listing these conventions as rules, ask students to build them through a process of observation, inference, and analysis through examining examples of the genre. Make them confront all the dimensions of the rhetorical situation (including audience), so that when it is time for them to write, they know who they’re writing to and why.

These are not guarantees of success – as my own struggles teaching first-year writing attest – but they give us a fighting shot.

We can bridge some of the disconnect between what we want students to do and what they think we want them to do, but it’s up to us to build that bridge. And let's not forget that having students struggle is actually an excellent educational outcome.

But that struggle must be meaningful to students, and so even if they are defeated, they are better armed for the next battle.

[1] Once I’ve recovered more thoroughly from the end of the semester, I should be able to write in a form other than a list again.

[2] Not universally true, but even a two-semester sequence is not sufficient by itself.

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