What and why do students and faculty (and anyone else) want to and not want to write?

I read two different education media articles the other day that both spoke to me in oddly similar ways about the reasons for (or for not) writing. First there was from IHE, “What Students Write,” which is a sort of review/essay about Dan Melzer’s book, Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. The article is good and the book sounds great. The very short version (based on just the article) is that Melzer studied over 2100 different writing assignments across the curriculum at about 100 different institutions. Not surprisingly, most of the writing assignments teachers give are shitty, mostly an exercise for students to prove to the teacher that they can repeat back in a written text (an essay, an exam, etc.) what was in the lecture and/or reading.

Melzer calls this largest category of writing assignments “student to examiner;” I would more cheekily call it “parroting,” or “Polly wants a cracker” writing. Oh, and students better repeat what the teacher said correctly. Here’s a quote:

Short-answer and essay exams made up about one-fifth of assignments in the study. Melzer said in an interview that the testing scenario makes sense, given the constraints on professors’ time. Offering multiple opportunities for feedback in a non-test scenario takes a lot more work, he said. But such opportunities are critical to writing development and lead to better student outcomes.

“There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says.

In the other corner comes this from CHE, “Anatomy of a Serial-Plagiarism Charge” about Mustapha Marrouchi, who is a postcolonial lit professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. There’s more about the case in an article behind CHE’s firewall, but the gist is that Marrouchi has apparently been plagiarising to different degrees for decades, this despite the fact that he was enough of a “big shot” in the field to get hired away from a previously high-paid spot at Louisiana State to an even sweeter gig at UNLV. What the non-firewalled piece I’m linking to here does do is highlight a number of incidents that do look kind of fishy.

So, what do these two articles/incidents say about what it is that students and teachers write and read, what they want to write and read? A few thoughts:

I like to write and always have. Writing is one of the few things I am actually good at and I can recall being rewarded for my talent as far back as grade school. I like to read too, though like a lot of my students (especially the creative writing types), I like to write more.

I write and read every day, but I still have a hard time with “assigned” writing, meaning for me not assignments from a teacher (I’m not taking any classes) but writing I am supposed to be doing for some other reason. There are at least three projects I’m procrastinating on right now to write this post instead. The same goes with reading. There are a stack of academic books and novels I am supposed to be reading right now so I can be a better person and a good intellectual, not to mention to be prepared to teach in a couple of weeks. But I am more likely to be reading the links to things on Twitter or the listicles on Facebook about which Hollywood stars began their careers as strippers.

So I guess there are some ways in which these reports of lazy writing assignments and serial plagiarism are not that surprising to me. Like everyone else in my field, I try to develop writing assignments with a clear purpose and audience beyond just writing to me as the teacher and beyond just having students prove to me they did the reading and/or were otherwise paying attention. I do think it makes a difference. I think students learn more from such assignments, I find this writing a lot more pleasant to read and grade, and I think it helps students to not plagiarize. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I also think it’s true that there’s a difference between assigning writing and teaching writing.  So when professors give the sort of stupid assignments that Melzer is writing about in his book and with no actual teaching involved, it’s no wonder that those professors are disappointed and even angry about their students’ writing.  Garbage in, garbage out.

But good assignments aren’t a cure-all. Not everyone likes to write just to write, and students frequently don’t like to write and thus resist new assignments. I gave a talk back at the CCCCs in Louisville in 2010 (a talk I should probably assign myself to revisit and rewrite into a longer essay) about using the movie RiP! A Remix Manifesto as a topic and a guiding principle for teaching first year writing.  Among many other things, I said that while it is certainly more pedagogically effective and ethical to give writing assignments that are not parroting, many of my students ultimately reverted to writing five paragraph essays. When students do this, I think it is because it is the path of least resistance (it’s always easier doing something you’ve done rather than doing something you haven’t done before), but also because students don’t trust me. Perhaps for good reason. They’ve had years of previous school writing assignments where teachers obsessed over their repeating what the book/the teacher said and where they were dinged on the grade for grammar stuff. And the whole situation is by definition not “authentic” since it is writing assigned and tied to a grade. Students are “made” to do this– at least in the sense that it’s tied to requirements for a class and a grade. Even assignments that ask students to “self-reflect” on something on their own are still assigned.

Then there’s my cynical connection of assigned writing (bad assignments in particular) to Mustapha Marrouchi. I don’t know anything about him or his scholarly work beyond what I read in The Chronicle. But based on that reading, here’s a guy who has had quite the successful academic career by publishing convoluted literary and cultural theory liberally sprinkled with plagiarised and otherwise paraphrased quotes. He’s been doing this for years, and while he has apparently sort of/kind of been called on this before, he’s only just getting into serious trouble for this now. How did this happen and how did he get away with it that long? Is it possible that so few readers– academic or otherwise– read  Marrouchi’s work that no one really noticed it as a serious problem for more than 20 years? Did no one care?

And why did Marrouchi do this anyway? As the examples in that CHE piece make clear, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot for Marrouchi to cite his sources, to write “as Terry Eagleton put it” or whatever. Was he as a writer just too lazy to cite his sources? Was much of Marrouchi’s scholarship the equivalent of the five paragraph drudgery assigned to him by academia so that he could get another line on his CV? What’s going on here?

I guess this gets me back to the question about what and why does anyone write anything. But I don’t really know the answer to my questions, not even for myself as a writer.  All I can say is do the best that you can with writing assignments, hoping for the best but understanding the inherent limitations of the rhetorical situation that is Education generally. Make all writing as engaging and as new and as thoughtful as possible.  Don’t make students do dumb assignments just so they can do dumb assignments that get some grade. Don’t write dumb and/or plagiarized scholarship just so you can write scholarship.

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