Heather Dorn Basic Writing January 23, 2007
Ann E. Green’s My Uncle’s Guns, reminds me a great deal of a story that Vanessa Jackson wrote which took the form of a student’s essay through multiple drafts and the teacher’s comments in between. Each draft reflected the student’s perception of the teacher’s comments and each draft also lost a bit of the student’s voice and the impact of the paper in an effort to meet the teacher’s guidelines. As in Green’s story, the student tries to conform to what he/she thinks that the instructor wants. “Can’t you just tell us what you want us to write about?” Green’s character questions (75). This ambiguity can be uncomfortable and as Strickland & Strickland points out, it can be hard to convince students to worry less about the grades.
However, in the students’ defense, grades do matter, and the teacher does assess students, and typically teachers are looking for something specific, whether or not they are good at communicating that to their students, or whether or not they even realize it. It is interesting that this character is worried about leaving Louise in the story because she thinks her teacher might not see the value of the character. But shouldn’t the student be thinking about her own purposes as well and what she wants to get out of writing what she is writing? Otherwise, who is writing the text, the teacher or the student? And how then would we (as teachers) go about assessing that text? Or should we even?
The NCTE guidelines talk about these multiple purposes and many of them are personal. Even the academic one’s can be personal. And the Strickland & Strickland piece talks about a transactional classroom that meets the needs and interests of the students instead of the other way around. By prescribing set assignments and guidelines in genre and subject matter, aren’t we asking students to fit us instead of allowing them to determine their own purposes and decide how they can fulfill them?
I often question the using grades as an assessment. As both of these pieces show, grades are one of the reasons that students are so interested in the teacher’s expectations and in trying to please the teacher. I guess I want to know what the purpose is of giving grades? I can understand a pass/fail system, but I have trouble wrapping my mind around the benefit of an A-F system.
One thing I found interesting in Maher’s article was the stronger literacy result that occurred in the prison students as opposed to those on “the outside.” If this was due to letter writing, as Maher suggests, then it would seem to break down the binary of personal vs. academic writing. Writing is then just writing. Since being in CW classes as an undergrad, I have heard many people declare that you can be great at creative writing but horrible at academic writing. But I wonder if this ever really happens or if this is just another piece of “lore” that runs through English departments and keeps the supposed two sides (as if all writing is not somewhat creative) separate.