The Half Empty, Half Full Class:
Fulfilling Ourselves by Filling in Our Descriptions of Students
“Our expectations about teaching are largely self-fulfilling. The teaching of writing is enormously exciting only if we expect it to be, that is, only if we expect our students to write interesting essays, only if we read and listen carefully between the lines, only if we are honest with them and with ourselves.” (Tobin 1)
As graduate instructors, what words do we use to describe our students? Listen in the carrels: “narrow-minded,” “careless,” and “apathetic” (or even some of Hemingway’s “unprintable” and “unmentionable” terms) are voiced far more often than “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “motivated.” Throughout our conversations about teaching we use “the stock figure of the student, a character whose inability to perform well in school is his defining feature” (Helmers 4, italics in original). While talking about our students in negative ways may be rude, the more important issue with our language is not so much what it says about our students but what it does to ourselves. The language we use shapes our behavior: negative words can defeat our own teaching efforts, whereas positive speech can help us succeed.
The negativity in our language focuses on what students lack, emphasizing that they come to college not “with” but “without.” Even the course name “First-Year Writing” enforces the metaphor: this is hardly the students’ first year of writing instruction—they have actually spent at least twelve years writing in school—yet the name draws attention to the sense of beginning the class emphasizes. Marguerite Helmers writes that “even the student’s university experience is said to begin in absence” (22). Composition instructors generally agree that students enter college lacking skills they should already have gained because “high schools failed in their duty to train writers” (23).
Helmers identifies a number of common metaphors used to describe writing students, including the student as ill, a child, deviant, and a beast. Each metaphor calls attention to something students lack: health, maturity, responsibility, and humanity. An example of these types of metaphors appears in the writing of Kirk Kidwell, who describes new college students’ experiences in terms of what they have not yet done: “that is what makes the first year in college so aggravating, so purgatorial, for the typical student: thinking. Students seem to be consistently amazed when they discover that . . . merely providing the right answer is no longer sufficient” (255). Kidwell’s description focuses on what students cannot do: they have never been expected to think and therefore find college “purgatorial.” Like Kidwell, we often focus on what our students cannot do. We talk about how they don’t respond to emails, don’t seem engaged in the course, don’t come to conferences, don’t staple papers, and don’t know how to find help or even know when to ask for it. They don’t like writing, don’t watch the news, don’t read critically, and don’t spell-check their papers—all things we, as instructors, assume we do.
Often these descriptions make very little sense and actually contradict our efforts to teach. For example, one metaphor we frequently use is the student-as-child metaphor. I call my students “my kids” all the time, and I regularly hear instructors excuse students’ less-responsible behavior with, “They’re just such young kids.” In calling students “children,” we emphasize the mature skills they lack and view them as developmentally unready to receive instruction. Yet we do not treat students the way we would real children.
Consider, for example, the illustration used by Don Holdaway, who studies language development in young children. He describes a typical scene in which, when a baby says “jar- jar,” her father cheers, announcing to everyone that his daughter has just said “Daddy.” Though the baby’s approximation for “Daddy” is very poor, the father’s lavish praise encourages her to continue her attempts and ultimately succeed (21). Though, like this father, we generally treat children with encouragement and enthusiasm, emphasizing how closely their words and actions mimic our own, we treat our students—metaphorical children—with disdain, emphasizing how poorly their words and actions approximate our own and forgetting that we were once “children” too. As another graduate instructor has said, “I had somehow assumed that we knew how to do everything when we came to college”—conveniently forgetting that we didn’t.
So whereas “children writers of five frequently know how to manipulate a pen, . . . are aware of the direction that writing follows across the page, and . . . are aware that writing records a story[,] college writers, on the other hand, are marked as beginners because of the absence of words on a page and the absence of internalized conventions of grammar” (Helmers 78). Somewhere in their years of schooling, though they accumulate more and more skills, children transition from being defined by what they can do to what they cannot do. In the composition classroom, this definition shifts classroom problems from teaching, which we instructors can influence, to the students’ developmental state, which we cannot. This makes the task of teaching seem impossible.
We have many motivations for negative talk. One reason may be that degrading descriptions of students can help establish our identity as part of a community of instructors (those with authority), as opposed to students (those without). As new teachers, we enter the community of composition instructors, which can be an important resource and strength. But this community is also hard to define, as it is made up of faculty more diverse than similar (part-time, fulltime, new, experienced, student, tenured, etc.). Sometimes the only thing these instructors share is the experience of teaching freshman composition. As we talk about students together, we demonstrate that we belong to the discourse community by using its language conventions. One of the central language conventions of the composition instructor community is negative descriptions of students:
Since communities depend upon ideas held in common, each discipline has its commonplaces. Negative representations of students are one commonplace in composition; they are assumptions which, even if they are not shared by all members of the community, are at least understood by them. A member of the composition community would have to have a familiarity with these tropes: they are part of the language of composition. (Helmers 42)
Using negative descriptions of students can build unity as we join in a certain way of seeing freshman writers.
It is further unifying that the language we share about students is negative rather than positive because condescending language distances us from students and creates firmer boundaries for our amorphous community. In this way, negative descriptions act as a “strategy of distancing students as ‘they,’ opposing them to the group of practitioners, ‘we’” (Helmers 48). Such language says more about how we perceive ourselves than the way the students actually are. For example, calling students “illiterate” “affirms the faculty’s membership in the society of the literate” (Rose 562). Focusing on the skills that differentiate us from our students asserts our authority. Ira Shor observes that many teachers set up a firm hierarchy of control in order “to gain a protective distance from the students. This is especially true when teachers are put off by class or racial differences between them and their students” (103) or feel too similar to their students and want to increase distance. Feeling we lack the authority that comes from having a fulltime job and a Ph.D., we may try to compensate by using language to increase the distance between our students and us.
Graduate student instructors are often concerned about their authority in the classroom. For the first two months I taught, I wore a suit every day, hoping it would compensate for my young face and make me look like a “real teacher.” Others have accessorized themselves with new haircuts, side bags, ties, or pearls to assert their position. Many of us are closer in age to our students than to our professors, and all of us are caught—as our title, “graduate student instructor,” indicates—between the two worlds of the graduates and the students. Not yet initiated into the ranks of professors and not yet fully out of the world of the student, we may seek to affirm our connection with professors by overemphasizing the differences between ourselves and our students.
In the end, negative descriptions of students may succeed in uniting us with the discourse community of composition instructors, reassuring us of our superiority and so helping us overcome our fears, but the alienation this language creates (almost as a by-product) between ourselves and our students limits our ability to teach. Ironically, focusing on the students’ inability decreases our ability.
The language we use, even in jest, ultimately shapes the way we perceive students. Mike Rose observes, “The more I think about this language and recall the contexts in which I’ve heard it used, the more I realize how caught up we all are in a political-semantic web that restricts the way we think” (548). Our language determines the way we think about our experiences, for “scholars writing up their research, like students struggling with their first essay assignments, must work within the language-using practices of a particular community” (Bizzell, “College” 198-99). As we repeatedly describe our students as lacking, we inhibit our ability to see them as whole people and instead perceive them only in terms of their problems.
Our perceptions can alter our ability to respond to the contexts in which we find ourselves. As Maxine Hairston writes, “We know that young writers develop best as writers when teachers are able to create a low-risk environment that encourages students to make changes. We also know that novice writers can virtually freeze in the writing classroom when they see it as an extremely high-risk situation” (708). Graduate student instructors can likewise freeze themselves when they perceive entering the classroom as a “high-risk situation.” For example, after some time teaching, Jane Tompkins realized that what she was “concerned with and focused on most of the time were three things: a) to show the students how smart [she] was, b) to show them how knowledgeable [she] was, and c) to show them how well-prepared [she] was for class” (654). Tompkins felt so preoccupied with preserving her authority in the classroom that she disregarded teaching. While she found things to say and activities to do, she taught what was important to her image and froze her ability to teach what was important to the students’ learning.
I likewise shifted the structure of my class because of how I perceived the students. I consistently heard stories about students who could never recognize their own mistakes, even when they were pointed out; who didn’t know how to read, let alone write; who weren’t committed to the class. As a result, I hesitated to let students take on any independent learning. I asked questions in discussion and then answered them myself. I minimized peer review and commented all over papers myself. Rather than asking for what the students thought they needed help with, I told them what to fix. By focusing on my own role as an expert in the classroom, I neglected what could have been a valuable resource—my students.
In viewing students as incapable of or unwilling to contribute to the classroom, we take on a heavy load: “It is easy, if we view teaching as a one-way street, to fall into the trap of doing more than 50 percent of the work in the classroom. If we see teachers as having the answers and the students having the questions, we invite an imbalance in the relationship which can only cause a drain on teachers’ energy” (Hendricks 27). As I found, the classroom can be overwhelming when you believe students are only there to detract from the learning environment.
Eventually, with enough talk about freshman ineptitude, graduate student instructors make those problems loom larger in their minds than anything they can fix in a single semester. When we believe, because of our own language, that we are dealing with problems as drastic as “illiteracy,” “indolence,” and “incompetence,” we turn our teaching into a “high-risk situation” that ultimately becomes a no-win situation.
By shifting descriptions of students from focusing on what they potentially lack to what they actually have, we can feel enabled to fulfill the manageable task of instructing—not reconstructing—students’ minds. Pat Bizzell describes the change in her own ability to teach, which came as a result of perceiving her students’ problems less dramatically. At first, she writes, “I had felt that my students had some kind of serious problem, expressed by the ‘remedial’ or ‘developmental’ name and approach attached to the course I was teaching” (Academic 6). But when she came to view her students “as beginners, newcomers to a complex discursive world with whose ways of using language they were relatively unfamiliar,” she felt able to teach (Academic 7). By defining students in terms of what they come with and not what they lack, graduate instructors set for themselves surmountable challenges that can be overcome by building on the students’ strengths.
For example, a focus on ability could change the grading experience. Much of what weighs on a graduate student instructor is the perceived drudgery of reading, responding to, and grading student compositions. Last week I walked into our graduate carrels to find a fellow graduate student staring bleary-eyed at a deep stack of student papers. He had been grading for six hours straight, but when I suggested he take a break he just groaned, “They’re so bad; I’d rather just get it over with.” Frustrations with grading weigh heavily on many of us. But by reconsidering student writing in terms of presence rather than absence, we can perceive the same essays in a different way. Perhaps “one reason English teachers sometimes hate to look at student ‘academic’ writing and call it ‘Engfish’ or ‘Black Rot’ may be because they see in it all the badness; the stiff, thoughtless sentences; the cramped writing; the mediocre ideas—but they may not see all the successes, all the possibilities that the badness sometimes overshadows and camouflages” (Hashimoto 81). By recognizing what students can do, we avoid being overwhelmed by problems we blow out of proportion by using dramatically negative language.
I recently spoke with a graduate instructor who had just received what was supposed to be a rhetorical analysis rough draft. The paper was framed in a narrative about a class field trip up a mountain, where along the way the students in the story discovered rhetorical tools. We all laughed about the paper, but while I was mortified that any student could so blatantly disregard standard academic conventions, the instructor who received the paper emphasized both how much more interesting it was to read than any other paper she received and how thoughtful the analysis was that was woven throughout the paper. By emphasizing what was in the paper rather than what wasn’t, she gave herself a manageable task that could become a constructive learning experience for both her and her student.
A focus on presence can help us teach our students based on where they already are. When I invited my students to hold small group discussions about current social problems to help them identify possible Issues Paper topics, I was exasperated to find them instead discussing future shoe sales, an upcoming chemistry midterm, and the cheapest ways to get the textbooks they’d all bought two months before. Later, an experienced instructor told me that our young freshmen are generally immature and egotistical, but rather than fight that, I should work with it. In our next class discussion, we built on what the students apparently were interested in (shoes, tests, and online shopping) to find topics both relevant to the course and interesting to them. As they explored their topics, they discovered profound, significant issues and ultimately turned in outstanding papers that they cared passionately about. Building on what my students were rather than feeling frustrated by what they were not helped me create a learning environment better suited to both my goals and their goals.
It’s tempting to genuinely believe that students lack any useful writing skills. But no matter how drastic students’ deficiencies are, we will always find skills to work with if we look. After all, many researchers have shown that even the most basic writers bring with them a set of skills and strategies. Barbara M. Sitko found that all the students in her study of revision displayed a “consistent pattern of problem solving” (176). She found that “[b]y the time they reach our classrooms, most students have devised a repertoire of methods for getting feedback” (177). Sondra Perl, who investigated writing processes, found that “all of the students studied displayed consistent composing processes. . . . This consistency suggests a much greater internalization of process than ever before suspected” (31). Nancy Sommers observed that “students have strategies for handling words and phrases and their strategies helped them on a word or sentence level,” thereby acknowledging that students come with a number of successful strategies (48). Even writers who lack the most also have the presence of some skills that the instructor can shape.
Recognizing that students have skills will require us to recognize the things that make students like us: we must see the similarities our language tries to dismiss. Rose challenges the differences instructors construct between themselves and their students. He asks, “What linguistic assumptions are cued when we face freshman writers? Are they compatible with the assumptions that are cued when we think about our own writing or the writing of those we read for pleasure?” (565). More than any other type of composition instructor, the graduate student’s writing activities (often done in the context of class assignments) may have much in common with those of the freshman student. Instead of imagining student writing as “separate from the vastly complex composing that faculty members engage in for a living and delve into for work and for play,” graduate students can benefit by recognizing the similarities their writing shares with their students’ (552). In doing so, instructors see their students, not as inherently different from themselves and therefore unteachable, but rather as younger versions of themselves and therefore ready to learn. By seeing the potential in their students, graduate instructors can give value to the teaching they do.
By recognizing commonalities with students, we can also unite our teaching work with our academic work. When we view composition instruction as a job unrelated to our research interests, we limit our investment in teaching and lose what could be a valuable resource in augmenting our own research. David Bartholomae writes that we place students “outside the official discourse of the academic community, where they are expected to admire and report on what we do, rather than inside that discourse, where they can do its work and participate in a common enterprise” (632-33). By viewing student writing as graduate student writing in embryo rather than as a different species altogether, we can find insights in the classroom rather than exasperating distractions from what we consider our real work.
Changing our language has the power to change the way we approach students. Rose describes the advantages changing our language could have. Though he speaks specifically of eliminating our use of “remedial,” his discussion extends to all our negative language about students:
This redefinition is not just semantic sleight-of-hand. If truly adopted, it would require us to reject [our current] model of language, to acknowledge the rightful place of all freshmen in the academy, and once and for all to replace loose talk about illiteracy with more precise and pedagogically fruitful analysis. We would move from a mechanistic focus on error toward a demanding curriculum that encourages the full play of language activity and that opens out onto the academic community rather than sequestering students from it. (565)
New ways of describing students would open to us new ways of seeing and teaching them. Shari Stenberg writes that “both teachers and students will be better served if we leave room in our pedagogies for students to compose their own metaphors, and room for ourselves to change in relation to them” (53). By recognizing the presence of students rather than limiting the perception of them to a handful of negative metaphors, we will feel more confident in the classroom, more interested in our students’ work, and more ready to invite students to work toward graduate-level writing.
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