Hypothetically, let’s pretend like we’re still in a pre-COVID world. You’re walking through the library trying to find just the perfect spot to get all your homework done that day. Good sunlight, tucked away from everyone, maybe a hot guy working at a desk nearby. Anyways, as you’re searching, you may notice several other students deep in their own work space Normally, these fall students fall into 3 distinct categories:

Student 1: The Laser-Focused Speed Typer. See how his eyes are locked on the screen, all the words pouring out of him like there’s a floodgate of knowledge bursting open? Look at him go.Student 2: The Frustrated Mess. See how he looks like his head might collapse into the desk at any moment, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all? Bless his heart.Student 3: The Maybe Facebook Has the Answer Idealist. See how he doesn’t even have a Word document open? He’s probably also sitting in the best spot in the library. Rude.

My focus today is on Student #2.

Student #2 is most likely suffering from having to write a paper for class where he knows what he wants to say, but he doesn’t quite know how to say it. In our readings this week, we learned that “Popular conceptions of what it means to write assume that knowledge of a subject . . . is enough to produce a successful written report on that subject, or that knowledge of the rules of language, grammar, and mechanics is sufficient to produce an effective piece of written communication” (Tinberg 76). Often times, students will approach every paper – regardless of class, subject, or written directions – that same way: a standard 5 paragraph essay with a distinct three-point thesis statement, one body paragraph for each point, and a conclusion that is basically a copy/paste of the introduction. Those of you who have been following along on my teaching journey here will be very aware of my aversion to 5 paragraph essays.

The problem I talked about Student #2 having stems from my disdain for the 5 paragraph essay: students latch on to it as THE WAY TO WRITE A PAPER. In Student #2’s case, the paper he’s trying to write might not even have a foundation in the 5 Paragraph Structure. Maybe it’s a case study? Maybe it’s a short story? But Student #2 doesn’t distinguish what he’s writing with what he’s writing about.

Should vs. Want

“For those of us who teach writing, the objective is not just to have our students produce effective writing . . .  We also want our students to demonstrate consciousness of process that will enable them to produce success.” ( Tinberg 75)

This quote stuck with me from the reading this week and got me thinking about Student #2. Poor Student #2. This idea of not thinking about what you want to say in your paper goes back to what a lot of my peers and I have been discussing in class: Writing the paper you think your professor wants you to write. Guessing what word you think sounds the smartest, what opinion you think the professor will share, and taking a staunch opposition against anything you think the professor also disagrees on.

Doing all those things, quite frankly, is a pain in the ass.

In addition, doing all those things goes against the focus of the reading this week: thinking about what you’re writing. Let’s say, for example, that I’ve been assigned a paper on Wuthering Heights, the best book in the whole world. I have two options here.

Wuthering Heights | Book by Emily Bronte | Official Publisher Page | Simon  & Schuster
Credit: Simon and Shuster
  1. I could write the paper I think my professor wants to read. I could talk about the sublime imagery of the moors and how they most definitely reflect the wildness of the love Catherine and Heathcliff share per our class discussion, and I could say that I too definitely think that Heathcliff is the hero of the story just like the professor who seemed to be really into the Heathcliff scene. And then I could probably throw in a few other buzzwords like the power of the frame narrative and an unreliable author that we established in class that Nelly is.
  2. I could write a paper about what I took away from the story: which is the Catherine is the true hero of the story. I could talk about the evidence that I found both in my own readings and from scholars that demonstrate that Catherine is simply the victim of her time – that she truly loved Heathcliff but as a woman there was only so much she could do to help. I could probably also talk about the imagery of the moors in Catherine’s development into womanhood, as well as how the biases Nelly has towards both Catherine and Heathcliff are very much present in her unreliable narration.

A lot of students with the same frustrated expression as Student #2 are trying to write the first option for this paper. Why? Because it’s what they think the professor wants. Nothing that I wrote in that description was false (except that Heathcliff is the hero because he isn’t and I won’t hear otherwise don’t @ me), but it’s also nothing that demonstrated that I thought about the topic and what I had to say on it. That paper would meet the requirements and probably get a good grade, but all that demonstrated was that I paid attention in class. Which, to be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t demonstrate to the teacher that we paid attention in class, but we should probably also demonstrate that we are thinking about what we want to say.

Things to Think About…

None of us want our students to be like Poor Student #2, sitting in the library waiting to rip his hair out because he just does NOT understand what the professor wants him to do. I’ve posed here how I want my students to write, but my question for you is: How do we convey this image? How do we firmly convince our students that it is OKAY to express your own thoughts and ideas in the paper?

Works Cited

Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition is Not Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing StudiesEdited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, 2016, pp. 75-6.