Make Words Count, Instead of Counting Words

Yesterday was the first day of what has been dubbed #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) on Twitter, and it’s gotten me thinking about word counts.  I’m an avid reader of PhD2Published‘s Dr. Charlotte Frost, and I think that there are many good reasons to participate in #AcWriMo.   To participate, an academic writer makes a goal to write a certain number of words per day or for the month of November, similar to #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where writers pledge to write an entire novel in one month.  Some #AcWriMo writers are pledging to write by project instead of by word (so, for instance, they pledge to write a conference paper [my personal goal] or a thesis chapter by the end of the month), but many other participants have word count goals.

This probably works very well for advanced writers (many of the participants appear to be graduate students or teachers in higher ed), who may have trouble getting motivated to write, but once they get going they can really produce.  These same advanced writers most likely have fine-tuned revision processes, where they take the hundreds or thousands of words they’ve produced and edit them into polished and publishable prose.  These participants, if yesterday is any evidence of what’s to come, also have an ally in Frost who has been cheering on the academic writers through the Twitter stream.

Still, I wonder if using word counts as goals even for advanced writers is beneficial.  So I tweeted,

“Love the idea of #acwrimo but so many are measuring progress with word counts. Is there a way to make quality a goal instead of quantity?”

Frost responded,

“Sure, or measure the time you put in. We’re not anti-quality, we’re pro process! :-)”

And I think that’s the key  when approaching teaching writing to students.  #AcWriMo isn’t trying to be a model for students, and it really has nothing to do with teaching.  But it’s gotten me to think about the ways in which we approach assigning writing to our students. Often I see assignments asking students to write a certain number of words, and it always makes me cringe a bit.  The implication is that the quantity is more important than the process or the quality of the work.

Many teachers indicate length requirements for student assignments by providing word counts; my sense is that because our own writing in academia is often defined by word counts (most journals will set a word count for submissions), some teachers use that same approach with their students.  But our students, in most cases, aren’t striving to be professional academic writers.  I’ve always believed that providing a word count, or any length requirement for that matter, can send a dangerous message to students: you value quantity over quality.

I did early in my career provide page restrictions for student writing assignments; I did this because I was too inexperienced to trust my students that they would write “enough.”  But as I became more interested in Rhetorical Genre Studies, I came to realize that what matters more is that students make certain moves in their writing – that they meet the criteria of the genre and the rhetorical situation – not that they write a certain amount.

This can be a troubling concept for student writers.  When I present an assignment, the first question often is, “How long should it be?”  That is a perfect teachable moment – a great time to talk about genre and what the situation of the writing task calls for.  Depending on the assignment and the audience for the project, I ask a question back, “Well, if you were the President of the University receiving this report, how many examples would it take to persuade you?”  Or, “When you were a high school student, how much writing would you have wanted to read on a brochure?”

Since I’ve stopped providing length requirements for students, I’ve found that their work is more thorough and less redundant.  I don’t get a lot of questions like, “How do I get to the required length without repeating myself a hundred times?” or comments like, “I feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over.”  And even though some students find it unsettling, what’s more important is that the message is clear — what I value in their writing is not that they’ve reached a certain count of words.  I’m interested in how they’ve made those words count.

Are Samples Ideal?

When I’m asked what I do when students’ writing isn’t meeting my expectations or they’re not doing what I’ve hoped they would do, I’m often caught in a conundrum of sorts.  The easiest thing to say to faculty members who want to teach writing in their disciplines is that they should provide good models (samples) of what they’re looking for .  The harder thing to say to faculty who teach writing across the curriculum is that they need to negotiate between the students’ desire to write what/how they want and the teachers’ own desire for the student to write in a specific way.

In a very famous CCC article, Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch caution writing teachers about the notion of an “ideal text” in responding to student writing.  Matt Ortoleva aptly summarizes, “when classroom teachers become fixated on a notion of the ‘Ideal Text,’ they take away the student writers’ authority to make their own choices about their writing. Brannon and Knoblach are clear about the potential harm: a reduced desire to communicate, a feeling of not having anything important to say, and a reduced desire to write.”  If we heed Brannon and Knoblach’s warning, then providing sample texts is the exact wrong thing to do.

But, for teachers with plenty of experience in teaching their disciplinary content but less experience in writing pedagogy, providing sample texts is often the easiest way for them to show students what they’re looking for.  So, here are a few ways teachers can provide sample documents in the genre they’re teaching, yet still avoid the message that there’s an ideal text they’re looking for.

1. Provide most of the samples from students, not professionals.  This sets appropriate expectations.  At a more advanced level, professional samples might make sense.  But generally, a professional sample should be one of many samples you show your students.  The majority should be samples by students with the same level of expertise in the discipline as them.

2. Provide multiple samples of how the assignment has been approached in different ways.  This sends the message that you’re looking for students to make their own choices about what makes an effective text, not that you have one idea about what the text should look like.  As I said in #1, a professional sample can be appropriate, but it should be one among many.

3. Don’t provide the most exemplary examples.  Instead, provide samples that are average.  Then, go through the sample with the students and have a discussion about the successful features of the text as well as what could make that sample better.  This gives the students some of the authority in deciding what could make the text ideal.

Collecting an array of samples can take time, and it’s something you can do as you begin to think about incorporating more writing assignments into your course.  One way to collect samples is to ask students if you may use their work in future classes as an example, anonymously of course.  If many faculty in your department do this, then you’ll have even more to choose from.  Nedra Reynolds suggests turning to the NCTE Gallery of Writing, a resource faculty in disciplines outside of English may not be familiar with; it contains writing from people in all sorts of disciplines and areas, academic and creative, professional and personal.  There are now also many anthologies of student writing, and there are writing textbooks that are discipline-specific and include student samples, such as Oxford UP’s Write Like a Chemist.

Git Grading Gone

When I tell people I teach writing, they often ask, “How do you get through all that grading?”  The implication seems to be that it must be awful, arduous, boring, painful both mentally and physically, (insert other derogatory terms here).  I usually say, “I really love reading student writing.”  This is true.  I don’t think you become a writing teacher unless you genuinely enjoy hearing/reading student voices.  But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to spend hours on end reading and responding to their work.   And, I realize that response doesn’t help faculty members in disciplines outside of English who might turn to me for tips on how to accomplish what can seem like a daunting task, especially when there’s probably little love there.  They might ask, “How do you get through all that grading,” but they really mean, “How do I get through all of my grading if I incorporate more writing into my class?”

Responding to student writing is a theoretical and pedagogical area that has for a long time been a large focus in composition studies.  A favorite and oft-cited work is Nancy Sommers’ “Responding to Student Writing” (CCC 33.2).  And while I’d love to recommend the article, as well as others in the area, I think that when most faculty ask me that question, they’re looking for some boiled down tips, not a theoretical discussion.  So, I present here, five tips for more efficient grading. Some of them are probably fairly obvious.  But they work for me, and I’ve been reading student writing for 12 years.  These tips can help, even if (or especially because) you don’t have the love.

1. Go to your happy place
I mean that literally.  Go somewhere you know you can get work done – your favorite coffee shop, the library, your office.  Wherever.  I absolutely cannot grade in my house. But if I go to a coffee shop, I can usually knock out a big batch of papers fairly quickly.

2. Multi-task
I don’t ever read more than five papers in a row.  I need a break to refresh.  For me, they blur together after five.  So I do other types of work at the same time.  I read five papers, then I make lesson plans for an hour.  I read five more papers, then I respond to email for twenty minutes.  Moving my mind around in various ways help me see all of the student writing as fresh.

3. Focus, focus, focus
I don’t mean to be focused.  I mean to focus only on the most important concerns you have in the writing.  I pick three or four things to comment on, and I limit myself to that.  For instance, my first-year students’ recently wrote arguments of definition as feature stories.  I looked for (1) how well they defined the concept, (2), how well they applied the definition and found examples of it, and (3) how well they met the criteria of a feature story.  That’s it.  You can’t look at everything if you have 50 papers to grade, and really, your students will be overwhelmed if you comment on too much.  So you look for what’s most important – fulfilling the criteria of your assignment, the objectives you want them to meet, the skills you want them to achieve – and comment on those (and only those!).

4. Timer
Set a stopwatch (on your iPhone clock app, of course) and read the first paper in the stack.  Did it take a lot longer than you expected?  Then set a timer (iPhone clock app, again) for the amount of time you think it should take you to read the paper, and read the next one.  Keep half an eye on that timer, and try to meet it.  You can do this without sacrificing the quality of your response.  All the timer is meant to do is keep you focused; you can’t daydream and your mind can’t wander if it doesn’t have time!

5. Do not edit
Unless you’re teaching basic writing, line editing is not your job.  I’m not saying that grammar isn’t important – of course it is.  But you’re not using your time wisely if you line edit.  Keep a list at the top of the first page of the student’s paper in which you list trends you see – run-on sentences, comma splices, tense agreement – but limit the list to three things.  Your student will find it overwhelming to see a list longer than that.  Tell your students to use the list to read-up in their handbooks, to go to the Writing Center, or to come see you during office hours.  This will take you a lot less time and will be more beneficial to your students than seeing marks all over their text.

Have some other quick tips for responding to student writing?  Please, leave a comment!

Writer’s Anxiety – Admitting it is Half the Battle

In a recent Inside Higher Ed essay, Nate Kreuter discusses conquering writing anxiety.  I found this article posted on the WPA listserv and was immediately motivated to read it.  Why?  Because I have writer’s anxiety.  There, I’ve said it.  And admitting is half the battle (at least, I sure hope it is).

Kreuter discusses student anxiety, and he divides this anxiety into three types: fear of judgement, fear of success, and fear of process (I have all three).  Deanna Mascle also recently wrote about student self-doubt and “breaking the cycle of defeat” (a cycle out of which I am most certainly now attempting to break).   Mascle explains that some students “lack positive beliefs to support their positive engagement in the writing process.”

There has always been lots of talk out there of the writing teacher as counselor, therapist, coach – a number of metaphors are used in writing center theory and in composition studies in general.  But what about us – those of us teachers who serve as the counselors, therapists, coaches?  What happens when we need coaching?

Can we turn to our colleagues?  Aren’t they also struggling, therefore not mentally available to give support to others?  Or perhaps they’re flourishing in their publications and therefore aren’t exactly empathetic?  Our non-writing friends – can they truly understand what it means to feel paralyzed with fear about putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard (don’t you teach that stuff, they think)?  Our non-academic partners who might prefer we not write; after all, the more time I spend writing, the less time I spend with my husband (poor guy – I do feel badly!).  Who can we turn to?  I suggest our students.

I have never been nervous about publishing my creative work (mostly poems, mostly published before I began my PhD).  That type of work spills out of me in a shape that feels almost beyond my control; therefore, I take very little ownership over it even if I’ve worked on it incredibly hard.  I’ve always been praised for my creative writing, so I never had the self-doubt that Mascle discusses.

And, I was often praised for my academic work throughout graduate school, but despite that praise, I do still have a lot of anxiety about publishing my academic work.   Even now in my fourth year as a full-time professor (and my twelfth year as a teacher), I am almost relieved when I receive a rejection letter from a journal.  Good – that means no one out there, particularly these impressive scholars whom I probably cite incorrectly, will ever see this article I’ve written, and I won’t be a laughing stock in my field.  I often feel my ideas are obvious – who wouldn’t have thought of this already? – and this sometimes stops me from writing anything at all (for instance, at this moment, I am certain someone has already written about professional writing anxiety, and used the same metaphors that I have and the same anecdote I’m about to provide).

In thinking about how get over my own anxiety, I’ve realized that I have a resource right in front of me that I’ve never really thought to utilize.  I have 65 student writers whom I see three times a week.  What better models for overcoming writing anxiety than the budding writers, almost all of them brand new to college, who put their writing out there in class through very little choice of their own (at least I have a choice, right?)?

I try to follow the process I preach to them – start slowly.  Through various workshops throughout the semester, the students ease into sharing their writing with others.  They start by sharing with one peer who reads to him or herself.  Then they might read their own paper aloud.  Then their peer might read it aloud to them.  Then they exchange with a larger group who has a discussion about the paper.  They might come to my office and share with me or go to the Writing Center for some advice from a tutor. Then, perhaps some sharing in front of the whole class.

Some of these students are terrified on the first day of class when they hear we’ll be doing this.  But they understand the stakes – it’s part of their grade – and that motivates them.  And as we ease into it, they begin to understand its worth as well.  They write to me in reflections about how much they’ve learned through the process, despite how scary it might have been in the beginning.

This is a model I’ve begun to consider for myself.  My stakes are different of course (tenure and promotion), but they motivate me nonetheless.  So I’m easing into the public sphere in my field first by joining Twitter and mostly re-tweeting posts I find to be interesting.  Occasionally I tweet an original idea.  Sometimes I tweet an idea and include the name of a person or organization in my field, hoping they’ll see it and respond.  I ‘met’ Muriel Harris this way, and now we’re friends on Facebook!   Or I include a common hashtag, like #dayonwriting; I was re-tweeted by NCTE.  As my confidence has begun to build, I’ve also been posting some queries to various listservs in my field.  This is also something that I’ve been scared to do, but now that I’m responsible for a very large program at a state university, I’m motivated to ask questions to people who know the answers, even if it’s scary to admit I need some help.

More than just getting over my anxiety, I’m discovering the value in sharing my writing, just like my students have.  I learn a lot about what I want to say as I prepare it for an audience.  I learn from the audience’s reception.  And I learn from critical feedback, just as my students do.

I’m thankful to my students for allowing me to observe their own processes in negotiating writer’s anxiety.  I’m sure I’ll say this on a regular basis now that I’m blogging about teaching writing, but I say it here for the first time: I only hope they learn as much from me as I do from them.