Academic journal article Reader

The Value of Student Writing as Reading

Academic journal article Reader

The Value of Student Writing as Reading

Article excerpt

I'm glad you could put my journal entry to good use! It's great that you hold to the philosophy that [student] writing can carry over from semester to semester [and] does not disappear after its due date. - Jennifer Schloss

[. . . We] need to think more about how we value student writing, how we represent student writers and their texts in our own discourse, and how we support the work students do as intellectuals. - (Harris et al. 6)

Introduction: Making Good Use of Student Writing

Anyone who has taught college writing for very long knows the drill: You run into a colleague at the end of the semester and stop to chat about how things are going. "Those papers are killing me!" he or she laments. "If someone could devise a way to grade those things more painlessly, it would be a boon to humanity.'' As longtime teachers of composition, we've heard this plaint a thousand times in innumerable guises, but at its core lies a pervasive theme: Faculty members do not consider the student writing they have commissioned to be genuine reading. They do not view it as a source of potentially useful information, much less consider it, to echo Harris et al., important intellectual work. Since it is mere apprentice work - at best - and since they must grade and rank it, they feel compelled to vet it skeptically, judging it with respect to how closely it approximates the kind of discourse they themselves produce for other academics, and they grumble about how much time and effort it takes.

Yet we seldom hear colleagues bemoan their lot when they are in the midst of time-consuming research that involves reading scholarly journals and books. Reading such professional materials requires effort and is undoubtedly work, perhaps even hard work, but the reading of student papers appears to be a chore. This jaundiced view of student academic discourse would seem to be rooted in the traditional approach to pedagogy sometimes called "the deficit model": a view of student writing that sees it as the site "where error exercises its full reign" (Miller, "Fault Lines" 395) and teachers hasten to stamp it out.1

Another impediment to viewing student writing as worthwhile reading is the inverted authority dynamic that has traditionally dominated classroom writing (Podis and Podis 19). In this scenario, the typical "real world" rhetorical situation - where the writer of a piece has greater authority on the subject matter than the reader - is turned upside-down, as the instructor-reader exercises authority over the text. Thus student writing is infrequently read as a source of information and insight.

In their classic exposé of the "hidden structure" of English studies, Comley and Scholes2 go so far as to describe student writing as having the dubious status of "pseudononliterature" (98), and they decry the tendency of faculty to dismiss it as "all practice" (101). Noting that all writing, including that written by professional scholars, moves through stages from "practice to earnest" (101), they question the view that the writing of students is all practice while that of professionals is all earnest. In a more recent essay entitled "Re- Valuing Student Writing," Horner, focusing specifically on first-year composition, refers to traditional conceptions of student work as "notwriting." Characterizing the analysis of Susan Miller in Textual CarnivaL·, he notes that student writing has generally been meant "for instructor evaluation of students' ability to produce writing that conforms to dominant expectations [...]" (11). "It is [...] a 'bastard' discourse peculiar to the academy" (1 1). Other scholars (e.g., Zamel) have observed that the dramatic distinction typically drawn between professional writing and student writing is exaggerated and artificially sustained. Lad Tobin, in his memorably tided essay, "How Many Writing Teachers Does It Take to Read a Student Essay," observes that "reading student essays, which too often is seen as a teacher's most tedious obligation, can be both delightful and instructive," and he views students "as writers worth reading" (29). …

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