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A Conversation on Student and Faculty Expectations for Writing

Posted by on Tuesday, November 1, 2011 in News.

This is a guest post by Katherine Fusco, assistant director at the Vanderbilt Writing Studio and lecturer in English.

On September 27th, the CFT and the Writing Studio co-hosted an event centered on what faculty and students think about writing. When I work with student writers at the Writing Studio, I sometimes find myself beating back the idea that faculty expectations for writing are “only subjective” or based on “weird pet peeves.” Going into the CFT event, I was curious to hear a bit more about how students interpreted assignments and written feedback from faculty, as well as what faculty intend to communicate to their students about academic writing.

Topics for conversation addressed issues including peer review (students reviewing each other’s writing), the grading of writing, responsibility for teaching or knowing grammar, and other sometimes contentious topics.  Workshop participants found consensus on a few issues, including the value of peer review, with the caveat that peer review sessions need careful planning on the part of the faculty member. One student also clarified that she found it helpful to read her peers’ work and receive feedback from her classmates. She explained that it was important for her to know what a reader thought about her writing because she didn’t have that perspective on her own work.

Other topics were more contentious. Faculty opinion was split on whether “good writing” was something that could, or even should, be objectively measured. One professor explained that he used writing from within the class to set the bar high, rather than setting a minimum l evel of achievement that, once passed, meant that all student writing was more or less fine. Other professors indicated that for technical writing, the setting of an objective standard is crucial for communication in industry. Yet another faculty member protested that he couldn’t even be sure that his reading of student work was always internally consistent and that attempting to set objective standards for writing is a dubious project.

Looking back at the session, it seems that both the question of peer review and the matter of judging good writing hinge on the degree to which faculty and students see student writing as having a genuine audience and participating in a conversation. When expectations for student writing do not involve either audience or interlocutors, it may be difficult to determine what we mean when we say that writing is “good.” Whether students or faculty engage in technical communication or interpretive argumentation, our success as writers can, in some ways, only be measured by our writings effects: Are we clear? Do we persuade? Answering these questions may not mean determining whether writing is objectively good, instead it means something perhaps a bit more utilitarian: Does it work?

As in many conversations about teaching and writing, the students and faculty at the September Conversation generated questions and topics for inquiry, and we did not necessarily pin down “the one best way.” Though we may aim in our own writing to achieve a bit more finality than this, the CFT’s series on Negotiating Student and Faculty Expectations enact the “good writing” practices discussed above: bringing faculty together with their student audiences, bringing students together with their faculty audiences, and beginning a conversation.

We occasionally feature guest posts here on the blog as part of our efforts to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning among Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. We recognize that everyone’s teaching context is different, but we hope that hearing others’ perspectives on teaching and learning will help our readers reflect on their own teaching. If you would like to contribute a guest post, please let us know.

Image: “Carry That Weight,” Greg Turner, Flickr (CC)

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