"Television has raised writing to a new low." ....Samuel Goldwyn.  (And, these days we might replace "television" with "texting."  the IP....)

Commentary of the Day - March 21, 2013.  Why Essays are not Like Steaks.  Guest commentary by Todd Pettigrew.

Last semester I noticed something that I had probably heard many times before but failed to really take think about.  A student gets an assignment back, finds that the grade is unsatisfactory, and then turns up in my office later -- or sends me an email -- and the message is some variation of this: "I really didn't know what you were looking for in this paper."

I've come to dread this remark.  In fact, let's call it that: The Dreaded Remark.

Why I dread it so much is hard to explain to student, but I think I can explain it to you.  The Dreaded Remark bothers me for two small reasons and one very big reason.

The first small reason can be summed in a small question: "Why not?" by which I mean "Why on earth didn't you know what I was looking for?"  I explain in class quite clearly what is expected.  In first-year classes, I assign an additional writing text that goes into the process in detail.  Do you remember when that nice lady from the university's Writing Center came to class and explained what they do there?   How can you not know what was expected?

The second small reason is that student who make The Dreaded Remark have failed to see a fairly obvious point related to the linear nature of time.  In other words, if you don't know what's expected in an assignment, you need to contact your instructor before the assignment is due, not after you've written it, submitted it, and had it returned.

Still, these kinds of lapses in judgement are to be expected from students still learning to negotiate education -- and life for that matter.

But there is still that one big reason.

The big reason The Dreaded Remark bothers me is that the question relies on a fundamental misconception of the very idea of higher education.  The question assumes that the assignment is some kind of personal chore I have requested.  From the student's point of view, it's as if he has been asked to cook me a steak and when he served me my meal, I complained that I preferred my steak rare, not medium-well.  Oh. Well…I didn't know what you wanted.

But an English essay -- and I dare say almost any university-level assignment -- is decidely not like a steak in this respect.  The qualities of a good essay have not been set by me -- or at least not by me in isolation.  The qualities of a good essay have been determined by the long-standing conventions of academic discourse.  It's not just me that prizes clear prose.  It's not just me that wants to see ideas well organized into coherent paragraphs.  A clear thesis and abundant evidence that is properly cited -- these are not mere personal preferences of mine.  They are well-established criteria for good writing generally and academic writing in particular.

But students often miss that.  To them it's not a matter of meeting the standards of the discipline; it's a matter of looking at me and wondering, "what is it that you want?" And I find myself sighing like Lady Bracknell in the Wilde play, and responding indignantly, "Me sir?  What on earth has it to do with me?"

My annoyance is not merely a pet peeve.  That students see the criteria for an assignment as being at the mere whim of the instructor is a real impediment to learning.

Why?  Because if the grade is simply a matter of giving the professor what he likes, then a bad grade is not an indication that the student has failed to understand the material or perform adequately.  Rather, from the student's perspective, it's just a matter of the professor not caring for what they did.  And if it’s just a matter of not caring for the sirloin, er, essay, then the student has no motivation to change or improve.

Maybe next time, the student reasons, I'll guess right.  Or the next prof won't be such a picky eater.  And I'll be able to give him what he wants.

© 2013, Todd Pettigrew.
Todd Pettigrew is Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.

The Irascible Professor comments: Prof. Pettigrew's comments reminded the IP of something that happened way back when he was a high school student.  Though short of stature and light in weight (and at that young age a little lacking in common sense), the IP was a member of his high school varsity football team.  The team was coached by an affable gentleman by the name of Lester "Bus" McKnight.  He earned the moniker "bus" from his days playing professional football for the Los Angeles Rams.  Members of opposing teams often said that being hit by McKnight was like being hit by a bus.  One of Coach McKnight's favorite exhortations on the practice field was "don't think, react!"  Though a fine gentleman, no one mistook the coach for a scholar.

Nevertheless, Coach McKnight possessed a great deal of common sense.  A few days after a particularly disheartening game that we lost by one touchdown scored by the opposing team very late in the fourth quarter, we were gathered in the gym watching the game films.  We expected that the coach would "chew out" the last player between the ball carrier and the goal line who was in a position to make a tackle.  Our player had attempted to tackle the ball carrier in the conventional way we had been taught in practice -- down low.  But the opponent broke through the tackle and scored the touchdown.  However, instead of chewing out the player, Coach McKnight blamed himself.  He said the "loss was my fault, because I didn't teach you how to make a tackle in this situation."  He went on to explain that if you're that last player between the ball carrier and the goal line you have to tackle up around the shoulders and neck, not down around the legs.  The "necktie" tackle is much harder to break.

And, it may be similar with essays.  Perhaps not enough attention is paid in writing centers and writing textbooks to showing students the difference between well-written essays and poorly written ones.  Sometimes students have to learn by seeing examples of both good and bad work.


The Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2013 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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