This past week has been intensive paper evaluation, both in grading the research papers that came in at the end of the semester and in reading papers (and other things -- letters, blog posts, commentary on artwork, etc.) from students who have submitted these are part of a graduation requirement at my university. They put together examples of their best work in a variety of categories and faculty from across the university sit down for several weeks over the summer to read what our students submit. The university portfolios (as they are called) are assessed and we can see where the students are strongest and weakest and redesign aspects of the curriculum to build up their skills where it is needed.
This past week we read critical thinking examples, civic engagement submissions (often this was a short narrative accompanied by a photograph or two), interdisciplinary thinking, and both "most personally satisfying" (everything from research papers to working in a lab, from studying abroad to sports participation, and from making new friends to having a job waiting after graduation) and their "letter to the university" (wherein they let us know what they have been wanting to let us know -- sometimes the commentary is viciously negative, sometimes overwhelmingly positive, and often very very short). But all of those letters, and almost all of all the other submissions, are read, commented on, and shared with the appropriate offices and faculty, so teaching can be improved, communication with students can be made more effective, and so we know where the significant problems are so we can fix them. It is a very valuable endeavor, both for the students whose advice and joys and frustrations are considered carefully, and for the faculty who read the portfolios, as well as those to whom reports are made on at least a yearly basis (if not more often than that).
Reading them, however, is an exhausting task, and I am glad to have finished the week up with only one emotional breakdown (had at night after one particularly angry letter I probably should have left for someone else to look at), and no worse back problems than I had when I went in. I was careful to take breaks, do some stretching every hour or two, and I was very glad to take part in 20 minutes of yoga we did on Thursday afternoon as we all were starting to sag dramatically. I will have to think about the commentary from students before I can really incorporate their ideas into my teaching, but in the meantime I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about student writing (over the orange Styx, if you want to follow the ferryman).
Ah... Student writing. When I was starting teaching, my mentors talked about how writing revealed thinking and if one was not thinking clearly, the writing itself would not be organized, informative (at least on the subject at hand), or even, in some instances, understandable at all. But I have found the inverse is not true all the time. Someone who thinks well may lack the ability to express himself or herself in writing. This can be the result of a disability, both in the process of writing itself, or one that has affected the ability to read. If you don't read, you don't become familiar with the appropriate rhetoric for a field, and writing will remain challenging as a means of communication.
But sometimes it is just disorganization (inability to set aside the appropriate amount of time to allow good writing to occur), inattention (not necessarily laziness, but the assumption that one is able to do writing without proofreading or polishing), dislike of a particular assignment or subject or teacher leading to an unwillingness to apply oneself to the assignment at hand, or, yes, laziness. As with disabilities, there are facilities on campus to assist students who want to get help with written assignments. There is a writing center which will read drafts of anything; there are many disciplines that provide tutors specifically for the classes taught in that department; and there are other people in any class who would be happy to read work in exchange for someone casting an eye over their own submissions.
In other words, not turning in something that is at least comprehensible, while understandable, is really not excusable. Writing is an important tool, and something all people should be able to manage with some skill. Even if you are not writing Shakespearean poetry or Austen-level prose or Krugman-esque scholarly narratives, you should be able to communicate.
Or at least that is what I tell my students. Yes, writing a high-quality letter of application with few or (preferably) zero mistakes is more likely to result in a job, or at least a job where you have potential to advance to a challenging and well-paying position. And if you are applying for a job in a writing-intensive field (marketing or journalism or any sort of research or law, to offer just a few examples), a letter with spelling mistakes or incomplete sentences is probably going to leave you at the bottom of the pile of applicants. I know this has happened as I have talked with people who have been hiring, and the ones I spoke with wanted someone who knows how to communicate in writing.
And I do believe most or our students can write if they want to put the effort into it. But the effort is not just in the writing; it is in reading good examples of writing. The local newspaper might or might not be the best source of stellar writing, but many universities now get the New York Times through their college papers program (I have used it for two years as a textbook for students in interdisciplinary classes). And when doing research, students should be reading the sources they identify for content as well as specific information they can cut and paste into their papers. It is not unheard of for people reading a tremendous amount of writing in one subject or written at one point in time to take on the tone of the writing of that time (my father's favourite example is the Commutator, the publication of the Titanic Historical Society, where the writing tends to take on the tones of Edwardian literature. That is because the accounts of the events discussed were written about largely by upper-class individuals who were educated in the last years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth centuries. So the material from which researchers are drawing is Victorian and Edwardian narrative narrative and legal writing).
In other words, I can tell when students are reading as well as when they have spent enough time revising their written work to turn in for a grade.
And here are a few of the issues/vocabulary/grammatical and punctuation issues that I noted on a scrap piece of paper I kept next to my stack of papers as I worked through them this past week:
"deviates away from" is not the phrase; it is "deviates from"
same with "based off of" -- there is no way anything based off of something will be stable relative to the thing in the prepositional phrase "off of" -- the proper wording is "based on"
Less/fewer and much/many -- the former describes amount; the latter describes number. You can have less flour and fewer eggs. But you cannot have less eggs and fewer flour (baking day today!). Oh, and they confuse amount and number as well when talking about quantity.
"A couple eggs" (to continue to pick on eggs) is incorrect -- it should be "a couple OF eggs" or "a couple of dozen eggs" -- "a dozen eggs" is, however, just fine.
Affect does not mean what you think it means. Effect is the word you are looking for. Affecting and effecting are the verbs; affect is really not closely related in definition to affecting. It is a difficult distinction and sometimes I screw it up as well. But that doesn't make it right, just because I get it wrong too.
Sense is not the same thing as since; prophet is not the same thing as profit; and were is not the same thing as where. Sorry.
...And a modifying phrase or a date (such as "Lewis, who was the king of Armenia" or "July 2, 1776") needs to have the phrase closed off on both sides, not just one.
e.g. "Lewis, who was the king of Armenia, showed his palace to the visitors" and "July 2, 1776, was when the Continental Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence." I feel like saying "you aren't saving that much ink by dropping the comma after a phrase" but that would be a bit too snide this late in the term, I think. It probably shouldn't be said even early in the term, either, I suppose.
I think it probably is time for me to step away from the red pen for the summer and read my own writing and that of people in my field. But as you are grading papers these days, feel free to list your own pet peeves in the comments. I will undoubtedly nod and say "That drives me crazy too!"
So that is that. We are done with the semester. I will probably write something next week and might a few more saturdays over the summer, but I am trying very hard to focus on a book I need to get finished, so I will probably not be as reliable on Saturdays as I have been. If someone else wants to write some of these, I would love to see them. Just let me know and I can make sure there aren't ten being posted one week and none the next. Enjoy your break, whenever you get it, and after next week, I will see you in August (with this series; I will be around on the Daily Kos whenever I want to catch up with the world or scream to the heavens about someone's antics).