Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why do students do that?

Medieval Woman has been grading papers and her experience is so similar to mine I that I must blog about it. I'm assuming that her students are writing about medieval literature and my students are writing about twentieth century American popular culture, but this phrase is so familiar. "Throughout history and extending into today, [insert assertion here; e.g. "women have been oppressed by society"]..."

Why do student write this kind of stuff? Tiruncula seems to think the answer is to ban certain phrases. If I started banning all annoying student phrases I would have a really long list, but I'm not sure it would solve the problem of poor writing/thinking. Is there an effective way to get them to stop?

Do they really think that these things have been happening throughout history? Do they lack the experience to know better? Should their instructor just point out that this statement is inaccurate? Should certain phrases be banned?

Although my writing is passable, my experience with writing instruction is somewhat limited. Often I'm able to say that something doesn't work, but I'm not sure what exactly the problem is. I can correct the student, but have trouble explaining how they would go about avoiding the error in future writings.

3 comments:

Fretaholic said...

Ahhh, the "ever since the history of mankind" sentence. It usually appears as the first sentence of the paper, right?

I tell students that I think of these as "bullshit" sentences--perhaps useful to start a paper and loosen up for further writing, but something that DEFINITELY must be deleted after they get the paper going.

I've taught freshman writing, as well as courses in my field, and this approach seems to work.

Life&Times said...

Do they really think that these things have been happening throughout history? Do they lack the experience to know better? Should their instructor just point out that this statement is inaccurate? Should certain phrases be banned?

1) THey haven't thought about it before this class. 2) Yes, they lack the experience to know better 3) Absolutely. 4) Absolutely not-- it's just going to make you more annoyed.

I don't "teach writing" as a course, but I'm constantly talking about it throughout the semester with my students, esp. BEFORE assignments are due. Things to look out for: Only/All, etc., it's too easy to poke a hole in that, 2) the first time (since when is it ever importnat that this is the first time, etc.).

I think with experience, you will develop a list of the most solvable problems and can pre-empt. I'm still going to see these things in my essays, but if you ban it, they're just going to find more creative ways of saying the same thing.

Scrivener said...

I pretty much agree with life×: the fact is that for most students in a first-year comp class their understanding of history is extremely narrow and they probably really do think that "from the beginning of time, women have been oppressed" or whatever.

That said, I also agree with fretaholic that they have been trained to use sentences like these as a kind of throat-clearing exercise. They think that they're supposed to talk about Important Stuff, which means they're supposed to talk about All of Human History. I usually try to get at why these sentences are so terrible by talking with them about authority and about recognizing the appropriate scope for their analysis: in a 4-page essay for their first-year comp class, if they can say something worthwhile about one essay they've read, they're doing pretty well and that's something they can reasonably claim enough authority to do with confidence, but when they start trying to encompass anything Throughout All History, there is no way for them to pull that off.