Just Ask the Students

A colleague's question prompts Laurence Musgrove to consider the responsibilities of professors when making assignments.

October 2, 2006

The other day, I received an e-mail from a professor at another university who had read a recent article I had written on student writing. He asked me if I could provide some advice to a committee he was serving on that was, as he put it, “looking into the problem of student writing.” He listed a number of questions that he asked me to respond to, including:

  • What is your perception of student writing?
  • Does it involve poor understanding of style, grammar, usage, and syntax?
  • Does it involve the lack of understanding of the form and procedures for producing research papers?
  • Does it involve the inability to put down coherent and clear thoughts throughout a paper?
  • Does it involve a lack of understanding of the concentrated thought process required to produce good writing?
  • Is the problem simply that they are not readers and have little grammar and writing training?
  • What kinds of programs do you know about that have dealt successfully with the problem? 

In response, I wrote,

“I think there is a larger issue that you may have not noted in your series of questions, and that is the notion that student writing in the university is primarily prompted and evaluated by faculty. By that I mean, if all of our questions point to what students can and can't do, we forget to focus on what faculty can and can't do. That is, if student writing is always a response to faculty assignments and faculty evaluation, to examine student writing alone misses quite a bit of the overall problem that exists at most universities. The answer to most of your questions is, ‘Yes, many students at the college level do struggle with form and content.’“

“But I would also say that it's important for us to understand that we get the students we get, and they come with a wide range of skills and attitudes and experiences in writing. It's our job to help them continue to develop as writers and provide the right kinds of assignments and assessments that help them on that path.”

“I believe that most professors aren't trained to design effective writing assignments or know what it means to evaluate their students’ writing fairly. In other words, most student writing problems identified by faculty are caused by faculty. Sloppy assignments and grading policies lead to sloppy student writing.”

“So I would say the long and short of it is that the most effective way to improve student writing is to improve faculty performance.”

I realize this sort of response may fall on deaf ears or anger professors who believe their students are not adequately prepared. Nevertheless, I find it curious that those who pose questions about “the problem of student writing” fail to consider that their students might serve as a source of knowledge about how to solve the problem.

Several years ago, in an effort to get an alternative view, I asked students enrolled in my “Teaching Writing” course, a mix of both graduates and undergraduates, to provide their perspectives on writing assignments and to make a list of rights they believed they should be granted when it came to writing assigned by their instructors.

Many of these students were eager to discuss the issue of rights in this context because they felt they had often received poorly designed assignments and had been graded unfairly. And they didn’t want to treat their future students in the same way. They wanted to be better English teachers than those they had encountered. In short, they wanted to have better relationships with their students, and they understood the power writing assignments had to promote or inhibit those relationships.

After a bit of class discussion and informal writing, I stood ready at the board to record their ideas on the board.  They created a list of two dozen student writer rights, and as we reviewed and organized this list further, we discovered that this list fell into four main categories: rights related to assignments, the writing process, evaluation, and ownership.

Of these four types of student writer rights, the clear majority -- one half of  the overall total -- were “assignment rights.” My students believed they had the right:

  • 1. To know the writing workload for the term.
  • 2. To assignments relevant to the course.
  • 3. To understand how writing assignments would meet course objectives.
  • 4. To assignments in writing.
  • 5. To ask questions about assignments.
  • 6. To clear explanations of assignments.
  • 7. To evaluation criteria with assignments.
  • 8. To models of effective response.
  • 9. To adequate time to complete assignments.
  • 10. To clearly outlined assignments.
  • 11. To assignments that would not be modified by the instructor after students had already begun writing.
  • 12. To write for real audiences.

In regards to the writing process, they wanted the right to individual conferences with their instructors on works-in-progress, the right to revise the first paper to better understand the instructor’s expectation, and the right to revise without penalty.

“Evaluation rights” included the right to clear policies on grading and late work, the right to objective evaluation, the right to evaluation not based upon the best performance in the class, the right to evaluation and response based upon each writer’s individual needs, the right to question the instructor about the grade received, the right to appeal a grade, and the right to have their work graded and returned promptly.

As for ownership, they believed that they had intellectual property rights over their work and the right to have it kept private.

Writing this long list of rights on the board, I was surprised at their sophisticated understanding of writing assignments. They knew just how dependent they were on good teachers for good writing experiences. The tone of our discussion also revealed how much resentment they felt about being subject to the whims of professors and their lack of knowledge about what students needed to succeed as writers.

Because most college students understand just how powerless they are in the classroom, it is unlikely that they will rise up and demand these rights. Nevertheless, I believe this list offers us powerful information on how we can better respond to the problem of student writing. We should take these rights seriously, try them on for size, and consider how our assignments foster or interfere with our students’ chances of success. I know it has dramatically improved the quality of my assignments and the work I get from my students.

In all of this talk about student writer rights, one might wonder if there should also be some attention paid to a writer’s responsibilities.  What responsibilities could we point to that aren’t already in this list of rights?  Well, those usually show up as admonitions in most assignments anyway, such as don’t plagiarize, proofread carefully, and provide support for your claims.

Still, I believe that when my students developed this list of rights, they were also asking for the right to know what their responsibilities were. They were asking for a kind of liberation, to be free to understand what is necessary and possible. They wanted to have better writing relationships with their professors, honorable relationships characterized by clear expectations, a fair reading, and respect for the complicated and time-consuming work of the individual writer.


Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English and foreign languages at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.


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