Student Expectations and What We Teach

Students come to college well-trained to write in a specific context: the high school classroom and the timed, standardized test.  In WRI 1000 and 1100, we don’t push aside that training or discount it, but instead we seek to use it as a foundation for the writing students will be asked to do at Seattle Pacific University and beyond.

The following comes from Dr. Traynor Hansen. Built around the course outcomes, it organizes some of the commonly held (mis)understandings students have about writing when they come to the university, setting what most students think alongside what we teach in the Writing Program so as to show how our teaching builds upon, nuances, and (at times) challenges that thinking.

Rhetorical Knowledge

Demonstrate understanding of the relationship between writer, reader, text, culture, and medium in various genres of academic writing (summary, paraphrase, synthesis, argument, analysis, and narrative)

Most students think . . .We teach . . .
The essay is written to the teacher (or sometimes other students).The reader varies by writing situation, but is most generally an interested academic reader in the discipline.
The writer is a student who does not yet have the full knowledge of the discipline.The writer is a (novice) scholar engaging in the discourse of the discipline.
The purpose of writing is to show that you understand the content. Writing is a kind of test.The purpose of the writing is to contribute new knowledge. Writing is a means for inquiry and exploration.
The goal of writing is for the writer to say what the writer means to say.The goal of writing is for the reader to understand the writer and to have her thinking on the topic changed.
Critical Inquiry

Ask good questions of the texts they read and write, attending especially to the relationship between assertion and evidence, to patterns of organization, and to the interplay of verbal and non-verbal elements

Most students think . . .We teach . . .
Texts are assigned for students to learn the content (i.e., they contain authoritative information). They write about texts to show that they understand them.Texts are a field of inquiry (i.e., they contribute to a broader field of knowledge). They write about texts to question them and to respond.
The authors of texts hold the upper hand (they know more about the topic). Because these writers know more, students are unable to disagree with them.The authors of texts are participants in an ongoing conversation about the topic (their knowledge is limited). Students are capable participants in the conversation, too.
Quotations are used to back up the writer’s claim, to show that she is right. In this sense, the purpose of a good quotation or summary is self-evident. To explain it would be to restate the obvious.Quotations spotlight key parts of the text that the writer will respond to. In this sense, the purpose of a good quotation or summary is never self-evident. It needs to be explained and commented on for readers.
Writing is thesis driven: you have to know what you are going to argue before you can write your paper. A good thesis is one that is indisputable and never changes.Writing is inquiry driven: you discover your argument through the process of writing and rewriting. A good claim is one that invites further rethinking, discussion, and debate.
If different sides of an argument make good points, the safest route is the middle (i.e., “Everyone is right.”).It is possible to make a case for one side of an argument while acknowledging other perspectives as reasonable.
Exploring counter-claims too extensively will make students’ own arguments weaker.Counter-claims are necessary and useful for exploring the complexity of an argument.

Practice flexible strategies for reading, drafting, revising, and editing texts

Most students think . . .We teach . . .
Usually the first draft is the one that gets turned in. (This is a holdover from 5¶ and exam essays).The best writing (and thinking) develops over a process of revision and rethinking.
“Revision” usually means editing and proofreading—one or two quick reads through the paper and making sentence level changes, fixing typos.Revision accounts for major changes and shifts in perspective. The revision process is marked by a shift from writer-based prose to reader-based prose.
Instructor feedback is either a) an explanation for the grade the paper received; or b) a guide for what to “fix” in the paper.Instructor feedback is focused on the future and is geared towards helping the writer think through next steps and writing choices.
Peer feedback has little value. Peers don’t grade the paper and they don’t have the expertise to tell the writer what to fix.Peer review emphasizes the social aspect of writing, which is central to writers at all levels—from beginning writers to faculty. Peers are uniquely qualified in helping the writer see her writing from a different perspective.
An argument should not change over the course of a paper. If I change my mind, I am forsaking what I believe. Or, worse, I will have to start over from scratch.As products of genuine inquiry, the most interesting arguments develop and change from draft to draft, corresponding with the deepening of writer’s own thinking on the topic.

Negotiate the conventions of academic writing, including grammar, spelling, and citation, exploring the concerns that motivate each

Most students think . . .We teach . . .
The five-paragraph essay is the model for academic writing.The five-paragraph essay has limited usefulness and is most appropriate for timed essay environments (e.g., exams).
“Good writing” is a subjective thing; it depends on the whims and preferences of any individual reader or writer.The characteristics of effective writing translate to many different contexts. The outcomes can provide a shared vocabulary for effective writing.
The defining characteristics of effective writing are a paper that has: a thesis, no bias, solid evidence, and good “flow.”These characteristics are all useful for specific contexts, but they function differently (or not at all) in different genres and rhetorical situations.
The writer must follow the rules that this teacher likes (e.g., don’t use “I”). In this sense, rules are arbitrarily based on teacher preference.These “rules” govern differently in different contexts. Writing involves the negotiation of the reasons behind the rules (or behind ignoring them), which can be deciphered and applied to different situations.