Requiring Revision

June 25, 2009

Over dinner party talk about my work directing a university writing center, a friend remarked that while reading to her kids a British edition of Harry Potter, she came across passages where revise meant study, as in Harry and Ron revised all night for the potions exam.

She asked whether I was familiar with that usage. I wasn't. But I had, in recent weeks, been mulling over the ways that faculty across the disciplines define revision.

My university, like many others that have formal writing-intensive (W) requirements, demands that W course instructors assign a minimum number of pages (in our case 15) and build in a deliberate process for revision. In a climate of budget cutting, when everything is under scrutiny, some faculty have been asking: Should we keep the current requirement of two Ws? Can we afford to keep them capped at 19 when enrollment caps for so many other courses are rising? Are labor-intensive W courses really the best use of faculty time? Are the W courses working?

The debate has revealed a range of unstated assumptions about what revision is and how it should be taught. Two of the more vexing assumptions -- held by a few in favor of the W requirement and a few critical of it -- strike me as especially persistent: that revision is about correcting student deficiencies and that requiring revision breeds dependency.

Conflating revision with correction is quite natural: Students submit (usually flawed) drafts; faculty prescribe how to fix them; and students fix the flaws. Such a process, as anyone who has worked with a skilled editor knows, may not always be fun but it leads to a better final product.

The problem is that the ultimate aims of editing and teaching are different: editors want better writing; teachers may want that too, but they ultimately want better writers.

Certainly students can learn a great deal by following the lead of a good editor, but when teachers slip into editor mode, students in turn focus on delivering what the teacher/editor wants more than on either learning or inquiry. Consider the extreme version (but I've seen it happen): a student submits a draft electronically; a dedicated teacher makes extensive, time-consuming edits in Track Changes; and the student scans the first few edits and then hits the "Accept All" button. Revision done.

The lesson here is not that we need to force students to march through a correction process more deliberately. It is that we need to craft our responses to drafts in ways that encourage students to take responsibility for their own texts.

In practical terms this may mean following some of the pedagogical recommendations of writing across the curriculum experts: when students submit drafts, require them to include cover letters that articulate their own revision plans; attend to macro-level matters such as purpose and argument early in the writing process and sentence-level errors later; rather than copyedit start to finish, line edit only a small portion of a draft, noting patterns of error and leaving the rest of the editing for the writer; balance critique for what isn't working with praise for what is; invite writers to focus on just two or three manageable priorities for revision; and so on.

This does not mean that we should shy from pointing out flaws; nor does it mean that we should avoid giving direct advice on matters large and small. But does mean that we should guard against complicity in an "I'll tell you what's wrong and you fix it" transaction.

The ubiquity of the fix-it orientation may help explain one finding from a recent assessment of student writing done at our university. By collecting course syllabi and student final papers from W courses in four departments, we discovered much good news: that faculty are assigning long, research-driven papers on challenging topics and are requiring drafts; and that over 90 percent of the papers met at least minimal proficiency for undergraduate writing as judged by faculty and graduate students who scored anonymous papers from their home departments.

However, we also discovered that instructor grades were, on average, more than a full letter grade higher than the quality scores given to those same papers. Grade inflation, the stripping of context, and a number of other factors may explain that disparity, but part of the reason for high grades may also be that well-intentioned students and teachers are tacitly locked in a correction mode revision: students draft, teachers point out what to fix and how to fix it, and students correct. Grades ratchet up with each draft as the system rewards compliance above all.

Is the alternative then to have students to work more independently? So think many who believe that requiring revision breeds dependency and that the job of faculty is to wean students from such dependency.

The best students, the logic goes, do need little or no help drafting and revising, so requiring them to do so is at best unnecessary and at worst infantilizing. The worst students tend to submit dashed off drafts, trusting that faculty will essentially write the paper them for them, which turns revision into an empty exercise. This leaves a small slice of motivated but flawed writers who will really benefit from teacher-assisted revision, and they can always come to office hours.

We all want students to be independent learners and to take responsibility for their own education, but that does not mean that the best writers draft, revise and edit on their own. That may work for some but it does not characterize the process of most successful writers, academic or otherwise. We know that writing demands stretches of solitary work but we also know that writers who are willing to share their work early and often typically do better than those who muscle it out entirely on their own.

The aspiration we should have for student writers is not independence as much as interdependence.

Teaching revision as encouraging interdependence does not mean withholding critique or going soft on students. But it does mean that more than deliver prescriptions or justify grades, teacher comments on drafts should challenge writers with options and spark further conversation. Only then can we leverage what sets extended writing assignments apart from other modes of assessment, such as exams: that by working across drafts and with others writers can, within the bounds of academic expectations, walk their own paths through the material, making their own connections and claims along the way. If what we really want is coverage and correction, better that we stick to exams.

A policy that requires revision should be justified not on the grounds that students need remediation but on the reality that scholarly writing emerges from a condition of interdependence, a process that typically includes the guidance of mentors and sharing of drafts as well as peer review and directive editing. Apprentice scholars deserve some approximation of that experience.


Tom Deans is associate professor of English and director of the University Writing Center at the University of Connecticut.

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