Why I Give Writing Assignments

23 12 2011


I have just completed grading eight sets of papers.  As I often do at this season, when others are focused on sugar plum fairies, candy canes, or hopefully the Advent of Christ, I reflect on a semester’s worth of papers.  Having graded papers for twenty-seven years, my observation is that most students do not like writing papers.  This insight is not revolutionary.  Students probably consider it some type of strange academic hazing to endure in order to complete a particular course.  Occasionally I encounter a student who loves the experience of writing a paper, and I relish reading a work crafted by such a student.  Because so many students struggle with papers, some professors find other creative ways to gauge student progress and development.  I applaud this approach and have attempted to infuse creative assignments on occasion into my syllabi.  I still believe, however, that the written work of a student provides one of the best judgments and clearest indicators of a student’s progress.  The written work of a student is like a blood test.

One might not enjoy being stuck by a needle but a blood test provides an array of helpful insights into the health of the body.  A paper, likewise, gives data about a student’s abilities at a particular moment on a particular subject.  A blood test reveals triglycerides, HDL, LDL, glucose and a myriad of other medical observations.  A writing assignment reveals how a student organizes thoughts, integrates material, is conscientious (separate is not spelled seperate—and that red line underneath means a spelling mistake), has explored resources, and generally reflected upon issues.  I spend a great deal of time providing feedback on papers.  Like a doctor going over the numbers on a blood test with a patient, I want students to know all the areas of concern (high LDL) but also the areas of excellence (high HDL).  Of course, students may only glance at the grade and never read a single comment.  Yet the paper stands, like a blood test, as a baseline.  A student can take a graded paper and use it as a template for papers to come.  They can get better as writers—with practice; one’s cholesterol will go down—with exercise. 

Just as a blood test is often predictive of a patient’s future health so is a paper for a person’s future.  If a student spends too little time on a paper, turns it in late, is not careful with sources and spelling, and misuses concepts, he or she might reduplicate these attitudes and behaviors in other vocational areas.  Of course exceptions exist.  Some student might struggle with writing and not do well on papers; yet they excel in other areas.  Even blood tests are not always good predictors. Individuals with LDL levels well over 200 who eat bacon, fried chicken, and all other manner of “bad foods” often thrive and live well into their 90s. A written assignment is not the definitive assessment.  A well-conceived writing assignment, however, can provide one basic evaluation for gauging understanding and for helping a student move to a new level of competence and comprehension.

Students, professors, and all who work with words need to appreciate that writing is a form of askesis or self-discipline.  Like prayer, meditation, charity, chastity, or any other religious discipline, writing has a religious dimension.  One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Merton: “We who say we love God:  why are we not as anxious to be perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service to God?  If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because, we are not writing for God after all.  In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well” (The Sign of Jonas, pp. 56-57).   One of the great truths about the discipline of writing is that no one is trapped into being a poor writer.   A person can learn, study, practice, and get better.  

So for the foreseeable future, the next fourteen years, I will continue to assign, grade, complain about, and rejoice over writing assignments.