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Writing Assignments in W Courses: I am thinking about not including them in the overall grade anymore.

I know: you are going to say “Yves is obsessed with this issue of grades.”  The truth is that I have been, if not traumatized, at least seriously harassed by students complaining about their grade in my writing courses—even though I think of myself as a very lenient grader; but the other truth is that one or even two semesters of college composition classes is simply not enough to turn our sophomores and juniors signing up for W classes into proficient academic writers; and if my students think I am a tough grader now, what would they say if I really graded according to the very detailed and exhaustive rubric I have refined over the years?  (see Detailed Essay Rubric – Cloarec)

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell proposed a rule that mastery of any skill requires—over the course of a lifetime—10,000 hours of practice in that skill.  Even if we include all the component activities that are part of writing (thinking critically, reading literature, reading critical essays and theoretical works, listening actively, evaluating resources, researching methodically, understanding rhetoric and syntax, arguing logically, appreciating audience, proofreading, editing, rewriting,  etc.), our second and third year students are still nowhere near that threshold of 10,000 hours.  It is not their fault: their high school years were spent in pursuits that were at best tangential, and at worst irrelevant or even adverse, to what is asked of them in college.

No doubt, the figure of 10,000 hours should not be taken literally (at least as far as academic writing is concerned) but rather as a cautionary metaphor about what we are failing to do: we should instead be helping our students “un-learn” their bad writing habits.  At the top of the list is the pursuit of the “A” as an end in itself rather than as a measure of knowledge or skill acquired.

A large part of the problem, I am convinced, is that grading the learning of academic essay writing is antithetical to learning: students are not learning to leave their comfort zone, not striving to express their original ideas efficiently, not “un-learning” their bad writing habits; no, instead, they are trying to concoct what they hope will give them the safe and easy “A.”

With that in mind, starting this semester, in each syllabus I plan to advise students that I will comment on and grade the essays according to the rubric given them at the start of the semester, but that the grades will not count towards the overall grade for the class.  This way, they will know my true evaluation of their writing, without fear that a low grade on the essays will sink their GPA.  Instead, for the overall grade I will reward sustained, long-haul research, preparation,  participation, writing, editing, rewriting etc., (all the good habits we want our scholars to acquire) and be critical of work that is slapped together at the last minute (which we all know is how most papers are written!)  I will also take into account factors like willingness to explore and experiment with content as well as form, agreeableness to and participation in peer review, timeliness of assignment completion, desire to become a self-directed learner… in other words, I am not going to teach them how write better academic essays—I am going to teach them how to teach themselves how to write better essays.

I will be putting the final touches on my syllabi in the coming days.  Do any of you, my colleagues, want to dissuade me of this folly before I commit words to paper?  Please let me know.

As of this writing, it is still January and the year is still, technically, “New.”  And if that doesn’t convince you, the lunar year isn’t until February 8th; and Norooz, the Persian New Year, isn’t until March 20th.  So, I feel fully justified in wishing you all a Happy New Year and a great New Semester!

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