At my lowest moments of teaching, especially while grading a stack of final essays (say, hypothetically, all last weekend), I have always found it tempting to blame my students’ writing problems on other people not doing their jobs. My job is to help students engage with history, someone else is in charge of the writing (and they are welcome to it). Our annoyance at student writing is only surpassed by the frustration that students often feel toward the activity. My wife, who is a math teacher, has told me how it surprised her to find that most of the students at her school vastly prefer their math classes to their English ones (a total reversal from both our student experiences). Part of the reason comes from that while math can more easily be learned step by step, a student can go wrong a dozen different ways in one sentence.
Teaching writing seems so impossible in part because there is no cramming the necessary network of skills into a few weeks of devoted instruction, and we think that any time working on writing will take time away from our subjects. Line editing papers alone is a time suck, and often I wonder how helpful my comments will be. If I write “awkward phrasing” on the paper of one of my academic peers, I know they are capable of thinking up six different ways to restructure the sentence; this makes my comment a kind of signal. When marking this same comment on a undergraduate paper, I can’t be sure that the student will be able to derive any meaning from that signal, and they will probably just discount it.
How can we help our students become better writers? Most of us believe that historical thinking cannot be separated from the ability to express that thought, and this blog has shown how many scholars are finding creative ways to tackle the problem. One tactic I am going to try next semester involves a type of triage. I plan to pick one or two specific writing mechanics to focus on, say comma placement and paragraph structure. I will devote a short lesson on the two and provide resources with a lot of examples. I will tell the students that this will be the writing aspect that I will be focus on when grading their papers. Usually over a semester I assign two or three papers. While I could pick one or two topics with each paper, and thereby potentially cover more ground, I will keep my focus areas consistent throughout the course. I want to see improvement throughout the semester. I also plan to pick writing areas that will transfer over to writing that my students will be doing once they leave my classroom. Will my students learn all the skills to be good writers through this approach? No, but at least they will become stronger on one or two points. We may not be able to foster an entire of network of writing skills in one history course, but maybe we can help build a couple nodes.
What one, two, or three writing mechanics would you choose to triage? Has anyone found any useful ways to improve student writing this semester? Does anyone think that this isn’t something we should be doing in our classrooms?