Professors don’t train writers the way coaches train athletes

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Professors don’t train writers the way coaches train athletes, James Somers notes:

In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.

Whatever you produce joins dozens of other efforts in a stack whose growing thickness doesn’t exactly thrill your professor. But still he’ll soldier on and read, and maybe re-read, and mark up and grade each one. Along the way he might leave short contextual notes in the margin; he might write one long critique at the end; he might do both; or he might do neither and let your grade do all the talking.

Trouble is, no matter how detailed and incisive the feedback, by the time it gets back to you it’s already too late — and, in a way, too early. Too late because your paper has already been written, and what you really needed help with was its composition, with the micromechanics of style, with all the small decisions that led you to say whatever it is you said. And too early because even if the professor’s ex post pointers make every bit of sense, a whole month might go by before you next get to use them.

This is not the way to develop a complicated skill. It would be like trying to master the violin, say, by going blind to a recital, having an expert tell you all the ways you’ve failed, and letting that gestate for a few weeks before your next recital.

It’s no wonder that so many students struggle with writing: you’re never really shown how to do it. Your practice is sporadic and undirected. You’re expected to pick it up, basically, perhaps by reading, perhaps by winging an essay here and there. Which is like expecting a kid to pick up tennis by watching lots of Wimbledon and losing in the early rounds of the occasional junior tournament.

John Whittier-Ferguson, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, has been using email to give his students instant feedback throughout the writing process:

If in 1976 you wanted to see a student’s work in progress, you needed a printer and an appointment. The student had to take notes while you talked, walk home, remember what exactly you said, and work up a new draft. If he came to another impasse he’d probably keep it to himself — nobody is going to office hours five times in three days. (Nobody is holding office hours five times in three days.)

Today each of these transactions — copy, paste, send; receive, annotate, reply — might take a few minutes. Emails can be composed and consumed anywhere, privately, quietly, at one’s convenience. It is the free ubiquitous highway for words. It is exactly the tool you’d invent if you were a teacher of writing who wanted a better way to teach people to write.

Of course that may be the answer: the practice might be uncommon because professors just don’t want to see that much student writing or spend that much time critiquing it.


  1. Aretae says:

    I’m actually hoping to do an empirical test of the value of this in a high school writing class this coming school year. I, like you, think that it’s an obviously high value. But I want the test in order to confirm.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Excellent, Aretae. Please do report back! It certainly seems like more writing with more feedback should lead to better writing.

  3. Bruce Charlton says:

    To play devil’s advocate — I disagree!

    The first requirement is that the student wants to learn how to write. This could be intrinsic, or could be because it is necessary to get qualifications.

    After that what is needed is multiple and frequent submission of writing that is marked.

    Too much feedback induces passivity — the student needs to work out for themselves how to get better marks next time. If they can do this, then they will learn how to write.

    The underlying skill of writing is learning to read your own stuff objectively. Getting detailed feedback from others usually interferes with this.

    We have known for thousands of years what context teaches skill. The answer is prolonged apprenticeship with loads of observation of the master and repetition by the apprentice.

    Some masters can teach, but many can not. Luckily it is not necessary. All the master needs to do is be able to evaluate the apprentice’s work.

    At the most basic, the master simply accepts or rejects the apprentice’s work, and maybe points out mistakes — but not how to fix them; the apprentice assimilates ‘how’ by observation, by working-with.

    Harsh, but it works.

  4. Todd says:

    I taught writing for a number of years, and the single most important factor in improving a student’s writing was feedback — one’s own voice. The majority of writers don’t even read their own writing. Most people catch mistakes and improve if they read aloud what they’ve written. If students aren’t willing to listen to their own voices, then they aren’t ready to be taught.

    Writing as one speaks will only get the student so far. Soon they need to be exposed to different voices and styles of discourse so that they may choose the appropriate one that fits the occasion and purpose. The best way to gain exposure is through deep and wide reading, and there’s no substitute.

    Writing emails is just one kind of discourse that is growing for 75% of the population; and although fun, accessible for youths, and low pressure, it’s not the kind of writing that necessarily engenders deep critical thought or builds analytic skills.

    — Wait, don’t go to sleep… I’m totally being serious here! Hang on, click on these links for some really funny cat pictures. ROFLMAO

  5. Brandoch Daha says:

    When you look at the investment of time per student with this deal, the professor has become a tutor (or a master with an apprentice, as Bruce Charlton puts it), not a professor. Well, yes, if you can afford it, that’s always been the best way to teach anything. In fact, I guess that’s theoretically the way they teach graduate research assistants now.

    I don’t see anything about this that’s unique to writing. However: As the success criteria for a given skill get murkier and more subjective, the teacher needs more face time to communicate them effectively. And writing’s pretty far along that curve.

  6. Isegoria says:

    I can’t disagree with the notion that the student needs to want to learn — but different teachers and different teaching styles profoundly affect motivation.

    I think that’s a powerful insight, that too much feedback induces passivity — but I suspect the problem is “free” feedback on early, ungraded drafts. It’s too easy to let the teacher write your final, graded draft for you, bit by bit.

    While I largely agree that students should learn by doing, I think the real reason for the master-apprentice model was always primarily economic. In an era before student loans, you worked your way through “trade school” by doing all the least valuable work around the shop and waiting patiently for a chance to try something interesting with expensive materials.

  7. Isegoria says:

    You bring up a sad but true point, Todd: most people don’t even read their own writing, let alone anyone else’s. Looking back, I think it’s odd that — outside of, say, a creative writing class — students rarely even read each other’s writing.

    As for email, I think we need to distinguish between emails as emails and email as a medium for sharing text. The professor in the article is using email as a way for students to send him drafts of papers, which aren’t ordinary emails as emails. That said, students probably need plenty of practice composing ordinary business emails — with capital letters and everything.

  8. Isegoria says:

    I believe the trick to this increased-feedback method of teaching is to reduce the friction in the system — by using email to exchange drafts, rather than printing them out and physically bringing them to office hours — and to increase the frequency of writing, but not the total volume.

    In fact, you could probably drop the two hours of lecture in favor of more reading and writing time — and students could probably revise one another’s early drafts.

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