Recently a joke has been working its way around the internet: If Everyone Still Wrote Like They Did in College. It is funny because it is so very true. College students, high school students, and middle school students do indeed write this way, but perhaps the more important question is why? Perhaps because they have been told to write that way! All too often in today’s schools students are given ridiculous assignments and a formula. This week I overheard a student talking about her assignment to write a review of a cruise ship. I’m not sure what class the assignment was for, but I can be sure both student and instructor will not find anything interesting or inspirational about that piece of writing. At the age of 12 my son has written his fair share of ridiculous pieces already and he has the formula down pat. I can’t tell you how sad this makes me.
I’ve been guilty of terrible prompts in the past, but I no longer worry about reading the drivel that inspired the “If Everyone…” joke. I strive to create assignments with enough room for students to pursue passion projects and try to build my classes around the ideas embraced by genius hour and project-based learning. It isn’t always easy, but then most things worthwhile aren’t easy. I’m still trying to find a way to truly implement project-based or service learning while also giving students room to pursue their passions and interests. Maybe it is too much to ask for in one 16 week class but I’m not ready to give up just yet. This semester I taught a first year seminar, From the Walking Dead to Superheroes: Exploring human challenges through comics, and I admit that not all the papers I am in the midst of grading are well written, but at least they are interesting ideas. The execution isn’t always what I had hoped, or what the writer hoped either I suspect, but how many of you have gotten to read papers investigating feminism in comic books, the sanctity (or not) of life in manga, or why we need super heroes? Of course, my favorites are the ones exploring the deeper issues and themes inspired by our current obsession with zombies, but I am learning all sorts of things about comic books and the ideas, discussions, and debates they portray. Not everyone can teach class inspired by comic books (or can they?) but surely you can find a way to let some passion into your assignments? I always taught professional writing as a passion project. How do you make your students more passionate about your content?
You might also find that such work solves another problem that far too many people worry about like a dog with a bone – plagiarism. I work with some people who worry obsessively about plagiarism. I suspect that you do too (work with people like that, I mean). These are the people lobbying to buy expensive plagiarism detection software. I do care about plagiarism, but I find that if students are writing about a topic that interests them, a topic they are passionate about, this tends not to be a problem. Perhaps it might also be the result of my use of low-stakes writing assignments to build toward that high-stakes paper, but I know my students’ voices and so I don’t need software to confirm if they are using words and ideas that are not their own. Either way, I believe passion projects can be a handy way to solve that problem, too. Maybe spend that software budget on publishing tools rather than plagiarism detection? I saw a wonderful Tweet regarding worries about students using their phones etc. to cheat: If they can Google the answer perhaps the problem is the question. I want to challenge my students to think, to pursue knowledge, and to share what they discover from this process. That is my passion project.
One of my goals for the coming semester is to work with some of my colleagues to craft better writing assignments as well as a better support structure around them. I believe strongly that some of terrible writing we see from our students is our own fault. What do you think?