I’ve read two great books about college students recently. Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do (Harvard, 2012) deeply influenced my teaching this fall as he described ways to encourage the self awareness and self motivation of students who become happy and successful later in life (and often also do well in school, but more as a by-product). There are indeed too many things school and especially college do to poison the very characteristics that most lead to success later in life, and I’ve actually taken to talking about HAPPINESS in my classes this fall. But Bain is talking about the best students at the best colleges.

So yesterday I read about the rest of our student population. In The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (Harvard 2009), Rebecca D. Cox reveals what she discovered sitting in English 1A classes for a semester at community colleges. She describes the enormous stakes for students who are both working and paying or using loans for college and how they think about the potential rewards and the daily real costs of college. These students are making a critical life decision and the anxiety they feel about the distance between themselves and he almighty professors are real. (Read the first 40 pages here.)

It is disturbing to realize that faculty are complicit in the grade anxiety that exists. What we think of as “having high standards” or “weeding out students who don’t really want to be here” is perceived as not caring if students fail. One student is quoted saying his high school AP teachers were like real college professors because “they didn’t really care about your grade…if you failed a test, that’s too bad.” (p. 68).

Another disconnect happens when professors try to motivate critical thinking in discussion, but students see this as something they did in high school and “stupid” or “I don’t feel like she is really teaching us anything.” (p. 92) This same student complains about assignments and wants to know “is the essay 300 or 500 words,” and “what’s going on with all these drafts and due dates?” (p. 93),

It is not a surprise that students see the traditional passive lecture approach as more valuable but also more “like college”, but it has made me rethink the importance of recognizing how their fears drive these desires.

I was also struck, however, by her short but biting analysis of why college writing courses are fundamentally flawed because “the skills required in different academic disciplines vary immensely” (p. 147) and that it is very hard for students to transfer skills from one class to another. We know that students don’t see the connections among courses easily, but it is also true that “A person does not simply write: a person writes something for some purpose. Accordingly, learning how to write according to the conventions of a particular academic discipline is best accomplished while a person is immersed in discipline-spcific activities.” She provides a long list of research to back up this claim.

We’ve got this problem in my own institution, and while we have just revisited the learning outcomes and titles for the first-year composition courses, I fear we will still have departments complaining that students are unprepared for the disciplinary writing faculty want to see in the sophomore year. I’ve thought of three possible solutions.

1. A common writing rubric for the entire 4-year would help a great deal. It would be hard (maybe impossible) to agree upon, but it would help students progress and would counter their anxiety that college is about figuring out what each professor wants and giving it to them. It seems to me these could be partially discipline specific.

2. At step further would be to have first-year writing courses taught in discipline-specific clusters, perhaps STEM, Humanities, Social Science, or Business? Students today and much more likely to arrive with a desired major in mind and departments could recommend one of these types of writing class. At the moment, we just let students pick a first-year English class based on topic: do you want vampires or Victorian novels?

3. Most radically, we might even allow departments to offer first-year writing courses (or suggest curricula) that provide the discipline-specific training they desire. The low-paid non-enure-track lecturers who teach the basic English courses are controlled by the English dept, so there is a political blood-bath there, but the University has the resources to diversity that body of faculty.

I would not want to lose the interdisciplinary mixing that occurs in these classes–and I think students start majors too soon–but I also know that complaints about writing are a persistent issue. If there is a way to improve student writing we should look at it. That still leaves the problem of student fear and our faculty insensitivity to it, but as with most things, seeing the problem is the first step.

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