Writing by the academic calendar

There is simply no way students coming into a first year college composition class can learn to write competently in one semester.

Unless, of course, they come in knowing how to write competently.

If I’m honest with students and tell them they won’t develop writing skill in a semester, they get angry.

They think they’re going to be ripped off.

A group of them will drop out immediately.

Why should they try to learn, if it’s impossible to achieve writing competence in a semester?

If I tell them at the start of the semester that they can learn to write competently (which is true) but fail to mention they won’t learn to write competently in a semester, they’ll be happy.

For a while.

Then they’ll get mad, work harder, complain harder, cry.

Those things won’t help.

Hard work isn’t what they need.

They need time.

Time to plan.

Time to try a different approach.

Time to figure out the real problem.

The real problem is lack of time.

At the end of the semester, when they haven’t achieved writing competence despite all our best efforts, they feel ripped off.

They get angry.

I get angry, too.

I feel ripped off.

I’ve never met an academic calendar that I didn’t hate.


Colonoscopies, Contractors, and Composition

For decades, I’ve planned year-long composition courses so that the majority of my students would meet my annual objectives by the beginning of the sixth month of the nine-month academic calendar.

Unlike real educators, who begin with theoretical underpinnings and work toward practice, I grab something I think—or hope—will work and plunge ahead without thinking about educational theory. Sometimes I get lucky and my idea works.

Aiming to meet my annual objectives about two-thirds of the way through the course is one of the ideas that worked well. It allowed me to bring all students up to my standard of competence—what I call C level— by year’s end. Some years, all my students went beyond competence to writing at the A or B level by year’s end.

Learning to write nonfiction competently is a tough slog. Students don’t have to work terribly hard, but they have to put in consistent effort on a nearly daily basis for an extended period of time. And they often have to put up with some painful criticism along the way.

Considering how painful the process of learning to write is, I am always surprised at how little excitement students show when they get it right. The typical response is, “Yeah. OK.” No champagne corks, no bonfires, no balloons, just, “Yeah. OK.”

Why weren’t students more excited about mastering writing when the process was so painful?

I think I discovered the answer in New York Times Opinionator piece by Ezekiel J. Emanuel. Emanuel likened the pain of a colonoscopy to the pain of going through a home renovation: the last part of either experience determines its misery quotient.

Emanuel cites Daniel Kahneman’s studies on pain that found people remember the level of pain at the very end of an experience. If the pain lessened toward the end, people rate the total experience as less painful even if the experience overall all is longer and more painful.

My students suffer the protracted misery of learning to write. However, since I plan for the level of effort to begin to diminish about two-thirds of the way through the course, students are left with a general impression that learning to write isn’t all that tough.

Coincidentally, the tough work I have to do in teaching writing also begins to diminish about two-thirds of the way through the course, leaving me with the general impression that teaching writing isn’t all that tough.

[Broken link removed 2014-04-24.]