What can we give students credit for?

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In my reading this week, I’ve noticed various notions authors have of what students bring with them to the college writing classroom. Everyone acknowledges that students bring something…but just what that something is varies widely among pedagogical theorists. Prior knowledge, bad habits that need to be broken, a slew of ideas about how to “do school.”But, do they bring anything we can actually work with? Anything that doesn’t have to be “undone” in the acclimation to academia?

Reading David Bartholomae’s collection of essays, Writing on the Margins, is like following the brilliant career of man, very devoted to student learning, who doesn’t think so. And partly, I believe he is right. Students do not come into the university with much–if any–understanding of what writing at the college level, for academia, really means. In the essay, “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins” Bartholomae emphasizes this lack:

“To discover or to learn, the student must, by writing, become like us–English teachers, adults, intellectuals, academics. He must become someone he is not” (177).

This transformation is one of the goals (or for many, the main goal) of college writing instruction: to help students write in college genres for college instructors throughout their college careers (may they last not much more than four years!). There are several ways this way of thinking runs into trouble, in my view. First, students are very, very savvy, and they can sense when they are being instructed in “school-only” tasks. They are happy to do these tasks, however, if it means certainty of a particular grade. Second, if we are teaching students to acclimate to an environment for only four (or five, six, eight) years of their lives, where is the impetus for transfer of that knowledge to contexts outside the university…say, to their future careers? Or, dare I ask, to their civic lives?

Where Bartholomae fails to give much attention, I think, is to the knowledge that students DO bring with them to the First Year Writing classroom. Though they may not already be the savvy researchers possessed of the specialized discourse of academe, our students certainly know how to “do school.” Twelve years of training in the American education system has given them at least that (and sometimes, much more).

It is this kind of prior knowledge that Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick discovered as a result of their study written up as “Disciplinarity and transfer: students’ perceptions of learning to write.” In running several focus groups to listen in on how students talked about their experiences in composition courses, Bergmann and Zepernick noticed that students at their university drew a clear separation between the writing they did in English courses and the writing they were asked to do in courses in their majors:

Students, “failed to see any connection between what they [had] learned about writing in English classes and what they see as objective, fact-based, information-telling writing demanded elsewhere in their academic and professional lives” (5).

However, students had great clarity about the rhetorical situation of the classroom–though, this works out to be a kind of “negative transfer.” Being very savvy and privileging grades, students adapt to the culture of “school,” and learn very early on how to assess a particular instructor for the minimum amount of work they must do to acquire the grade they want. Many educators are aware of this attitude and bemoan it. Why can’t students value the learning process? Appropriate their education?? I actually think it is quite a smart strategy, in its way. Why “waste” time and energy achieving a goal when you can simply analyze the rhetorical situation and address it strategically? After the first few assignments, you can get a sense of what a particular instructor expects, and then produce it. Repeat with each new class/instructor. Simple. Effective. (…if what you want to achieve is a certain grade point average, or a certain piece of paper with your name and a school’s name on it.)

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This is a powerful rhetorical awareness, but one that needs to be harnessed if it is to first–break students out of their habits of merely “doing school” and second–help students transfer knowledge from our courses to other contexts. Far from coming in knowing nothing, most students know all about how to address the rhetorical situation of classroom and teacher in order to achieve their purposes. But, we as FYW instructors must explicitly address and extend this prior knowledge. Make use of it. Help students become aware of it and harness it. Maybe if we give students credit for what they already know–even though it’s not what we wish they knew–we could put them on the path we as “professional” academics have found so fruitful.

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