If you’re in academia, chances are you’ve spent some time thinking about and discussing student writing. You may have found yourself enraged at something, or laughing out loud, running to share the hilarity with the nearest living being. Maybe you scribbled it down somewhere, or perhaps it seared itself into your brain and never needed to be written down. Following are some themes from student writing that resurface over and over again and some memorable quotes from over the years. Some will make you laugh, others will make you cry and some might make you do both.
The Either/Or, Good/Bad: This is the kind of writing where nuance and complexity don’t really exist. Things are either all bad or all good, and the idea that most things, people, cultures are more complex than that, is not really entertained. There is a need to come up with a right and wrong answer, to take sides, to conclusively declare something as good or bad.
The Appeal to a Higher Power: As a sociologist, this one is probably one of the more frustrating ones. This can take many forms. For instance: “Mother Nature intended it to be this way”, “This is God’s doing”, “It’s only natural”. “It’s because of testosterones”. Sometimes the higher power is of an interplanetary kind: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.
The Hyperbolic/The Grandiose: This kind of writing is prone to showing up in an opening sentence, where the writer wishes to impress the reader by making a grand, sweeping statement. Of course the problem with grand, sweeping statements is just that: they are grand and they are sweeping and thus inaccurate. Students particularly love these kinds of sentences in introductory paragraphs. Here are some examples:
“Since the dawn of time . . . ”, “Ever since Adam and Eve . . . ”, or for those of a less religious nature, “Ever since cavemen . . .”, “In all societies throughout history . . .”
The Resigned: Contrary to what you might think, this kind of writing doesn’t necessarily strike the particularly pessimistic; just the particularly lazy, who don’t want to think through a specific issue too deeply. This kind of writing comes out in phrases such as: “That’s just how it is.” “That’s how it’s always been”, “Nothing will ever change”.
(Notice how resignation is combined with the hyperbolic in the last two examples).
The Supernatural: These are rare and often deliciously hilarious. They often come about due to sloppiness and not reading (and writing) carefully. I will share with you an example from some years ago when I was a graduate student teaching assistant. A student was summarizing a crime from the previous night’s news and wrote:
“The parents woke up to find themselves dead”. Wow. That’s rough. And I get cranky waking up at 5:45 am. And no, this was not a news story about the paranormal.
The Conversational: This kind of writing fails to distinguish between a formal essay and (sometimes a late night) conversation with a roommate. Consider the following example: “The girls were struttin’ their stuff, trying to snag a piece of ass for the night”. This kind of writing shows up more commonly in less egregious forms than the above example, as a piece of writing that sounds like a conversation instead of a research paper. “The man is insanely muscular” (analyzing images of masculinity in the media), “Her boobs are jacked-up (analyzing images of femininity in the media).
The My-Dog-Daisy or the Personal as Proof: This is the kind of writing (or in-class discussion) where the student insists on presenting a singular incident from their life as evidence against the social scientific research being discussed in class. Many years ago I had a student present “evidence” of the inherent differences among races by stating that his “dog, Daisy, a very sweet and loving dog, never barked at anyone except black people”. Daisy knew something that criminologists had apparently missed. Other examples: “My brother is very sensitive” (thus it is proof that there is no expectation in American culture for men to be in control of their emotions); or “My grandparents were immigrants and went on to become very rich and successful” (thus it is proof that the American Dream is alive, well, and not to be questioned).
Let me be clear: This is not just another rant against our students and how poorly they write. I think these themes reflect larger patterns of thinking in American culture. They also represent how information is presented in various media outlets. It is no surprise then, that our students replicate these ways of thinking in their writing.
New London, Connecticut in the US.
Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of  Venus  and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .