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Criminal Commentary

posted: 5.16.13 by Nedra Reynolds

If there were such a thing as pedagogical malpractice, I would be filing charges against an instructor (not one I supervise) who sent me a sample of the student writing produced in her courses.  Her motive was to share with some leaders on our campus what she considers to be “the horrible state of students’ writing today” and to share what she’s up against as someone who gives and evaluates writing assignments.

I couldn’t possibly be shocked by the students’ writing–not because I have “seen it all before” (as she assumes in her cover note), but because her markings have completely obliterated the original prose.

I do realize that not everyone who is hired to teach (writing) has the advantages of training, support, or professional development.  I am privileged to have been surrounded by colleagues who take teaching so seriously and who are dedicated to best practices informed by research that only a few people have the resources to conduct.  I’m well aware, too, of the conditions under which some instructors work:  pitiful wages and long hours and isolation from a community of scholars.  Most instructors do a superb job under tough circumstances.

But seeing what this instructor is doing to her students–in the name of teaching writing–makes me sick.  Her markings say, of course, more about HER than they do about students today.  Still, I worry.  To me, this is scary stuff in a time when we are trying to increase retention and support students who come to college from different communities, with diverse languages.

I get like this–distressed about how little progress we seem to have made despite leaps and bounds of change in the political status of rhetoric and composition studies.  (See, for example, this column from 2011:

When I think that Nancy Sommers “Responding to Student Writing” is now 31 years old, I wonder how far we have come in getting the message out about, for example, contradictory feedback, where students can’t tell if they are supposed to “do more research” or fix the verb tenses.  Sure, composition studies has endowed professorships and more journals, but how well have we communicated to all instructors of writing that over-commentary is not only a waste of time but also can be a form of intellectual assault?

Should I dismiss this as the work of a psycho?  Are these samples extraordinary in your experience, Bits readers?  What can we do on our campuses to reach out to instructors who lack training and to students who are “victims” of this kind of treatment?

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