“Getting on the Right Side of It”

My mind has always been a whirling dervish.  Whirling everything.   Lost thoughts, lost papers, lost keys, lost change, lost Berit.  While other students looked so steady and comfortable, I was often trying to figure out if we’d changed rooms, or classes, or books, or why the other students’ subways ran on time and mine didn’t.  I just needed a pen, so so often.  People who sat next to me, more than once, took to bringing a pen for me, and I can still feel blood flow to my face thinking back on it. 

But I had two things working for me.  First, I was interested.  Second, I had gone to a school that taught outlining and proper essay structure and I’d embraced it.  I could wake up at 2AM, suddenly remembering, in my sleep, that a paper was due the next day, and write the paper without fear because I could think of three supporting reasons and find clarifying quotations by rote.

So when the author says all these students who hate this formulaic style of writing are suspect, racist, being rewarded for their rigid adherence to a dogmatic, bot like way of writing, I felt personally injured.  Outlining saved me. An outline was an anchor in a sea of whirling words.  I wasn’t a robot or a grade digger,  I was a just a student who really needed clarity, a system, anything, to keep me steady.

Also, I felt like listing the detractors whose arguments against this revamping of academic writing were weak, self interested or based in systematic racism, was cheap.  Why not find the best reasons for not going along with it?  Yes, it’s interesting that some “good” students who were used to doing it one way were resistant.  I’m not saying the writer should have omitted that information, and I thought the component of racism was fascinating, but I also think there are some valid voices being left out of the discussion and that the absence made me trust the writer less.

I do struggle with this idea of the “self as text”. This professor’s students wrote beautifully. I was blown away by their beauty and relevance.   But I am concerned that our world’s seem to get narrower and narrower until people just can’t think about anything but themselves anymore.  They won’t make that jump over, beyond the self,  into a world that might be interesting to them because the connection requires some time…some nuance.

An aside– I would be pleasantly surprised to get 20 competently written research papers that weren’t plagiarized, no matter how lacking in originality.  I’m ever worried that I am sending students out into the workplace — to work as architects, teacher or paralegals, and I don’t want to set them up for humiliation if they don’t know how to do a basic, perhaps boring, research project, perhaps on something that doesn’t interest them.  Work is sometimes boring.  For example, nurses often need to slog through and summarize excruciatingly boring medical documents for work.   Did I give them what they need to do it competently?

On the other hand, the research papers she received were so fascinating that I’m interested in her methods.

Also, her response to her student’s writing was exactly what I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t quite articulate.  She’s clearly having a deep, personal conversation with her students, at a high level, about the world around them, and I often feel like a grading zombie, which is a sure way to kill student curiosity.  “Here, you pour out your soul and I’ll stamp it for you.”

3 thoughts on ““Getting on the Right Side of It”

  1. Carrie Hall

    What’s interesting to me about this is there’s nothing boring about it– and it, too, is beautifully written. I’m not sure I really thought Kynard was accusing everyone of being racist, but I do think she might have been saying there’s something racist in favoring only that one structure over all others– or calling the one form right, and others wrong.

    I am really moved by your response in a number of ways. I personally have had an ambivalent relationship with structure, but here’s the question, I guess: even if it IS better to teach students to write “boring” organized essays (I don’t believe you, by the way, due to the very engaging nature of your own writing, but I’ll go with it for now). Have you, or has anyone, ever really been able to accomplish it? It seems like you took to it because the structure soothed you and made sense to you. Others… don’t have this experience. I am not aware of a class-wide experience in which students learn the 5 paragraph essay in a way that they can transfer that knowledge to nursing, college, graduate school, email writing, etc… What I am aware of are a million stories where students drop out of writing classes (and college) because they can’t make sense of that formula or hate to write. Or where they learn to write elsewhere.

  2. Prof. Schanzer

    This seems to me to be an important angle on the issue. I do think that many of our students have had the experience that you describe, and find the clarity of a format to be an enormous help to them. I agree that sending students out into the world without actual skills seems irresponsible. I’m extremely conflicted myself because I tend to thrive with less structure, but I 100% see that is not the case for everyone! And certainly not for many of our students!

  3. Grant Crawford

    I tend to agree with the above sentiment, which I think I was trying to express in my uncertainty of how to grade such a “free form” approach to writing. I don’t think it is necessary to glorify or demonize a structural approach to writing, but rather, treat it as “one approach to writing that some writers prefer to use” and then provide alternatives to students. Now, this would require us an instructors to integrate more lessons into our syllabi on these approaches, but I think it would be worth it given the higher number of students we would be able to engage. I would have to say in my own experience, most students actually DO value structure, but I think that might have more to do with what Kynard was pointing out earlier in her piece. They value structure for the sake of a grade they expect to get with impeccable structure, not necessarily because it is the most intellectually rewarding route to take. So perhaps its a messaging issue, in telling the students what they *should* be trying to get out of these assignments beyond a good grade. Maybe also lowering the percentage we allot to structure in our rubrics would give students more flexibility and freedom in their approach.

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